This post is a classic paper by Peter Rossi from 1987 (Research in Social Problems and Public Policy, Volume 4, pages 3-20) which addresses a chronic problem in all policy efforts to change complex social systems. The social organizations of modern life are so large, so complex, so dependent on the cooperation of so many actors and agencies that making measurable changes in these organizations of the kind intended by the policymakers is fiendishly difficult. These problems become particularly visible through the process of program evaluation. As a result, Rossi comes up with a set of “laws” that govern the evaluation process.
The Iron Law of Evaluation: The expected value of any net impact
assessment of any large scale social program is zero.
The Stainless Steel Law of Evaluation: The better designed the
impact assessment of social program. the more likely is the resulting estimate of net impact to be zero.
The Brass Law of Evaluation: The more social programs are designed to change individuals, the more likely the net impact of the program will be zero.
The Zinc Law of Evaluation: Only those programs that are likely to
fail are evaluated.
Read this lovely piece and you will get a rich sense of how hard it is to design policies that will effect the kind of change that the policies aims to accomplish. Social organizations have a life of their own whose momentum is difficult to deflect.
Here’s a link to the original paper.
THE IRON LAW OF EVALUATION
AND OTHER METALLIC RULES
Peter H. Rossi
Evaluations of social programs have a long history, as history goes in the
social sciences, but it has been only in the last two decades that evaluation
has come close to becoming a routine activity that is a functioning part of
the policy formation process. Evaluation research has become an activity
that no agency administering social programs can do without and still
retain a reputation as modern and up to date. In academia, evaluation
research has infiltrated into most social science departments as an integral
constituent of curricula. In short, evaluation has become institutionalized.
There are many benefits to social programs and to the social sciences
from the institutionalization of evaluation research. Among the more
important benefits has been a considerable increase in knowledge concerning
social problems and about how social programs work (and do not
work). Along with these benefits. however, there have also been attached
some losses. For those concerned with the improvement of the lot of
disadvantaged persons, families and social groups, the resulting knowledge
has provided the bases for both pessimism and optimism. On the
pessimistic side, we ha\e learned that designing successful programs is a
difficult task that is not easily or often accomplished. On the optimistic
side, we have learned more and more about the kinds of programs that can
be successfully designed and implemented. Knowledge derived from evaluations
is beginning to guide our judgments concerning what is feasible
and how to reach those feasible goals.
To draw some important implications from this knowledge about the
workings of social programs is the objective of this paper. The first step is
to formulate a set of “laws” that summarize the major trends in evaluation
findings. Next. a set of explanations arc provided for those overall findings.
Finally, we explore the consequences for applied social science activities
that flow from our new knowledge of social programs.
SOME “LAWS” OF EVALUATION
A dramatic but slightly overdrawn view of two decades of evaluation
efforts can be stated as a set of “laws,” each summarizing some strong
tendency that can be discerned in that body of materials. Following a 19th
Century practice that has fallen into disuse in social science. these laws
are named after substances of varying durability. roughly indexing each
The Iron Law of Evaluation: The expected value of any net impact
assessment of any large scale social program is zero.
The Iron Law arises from the experience that few impact assessments
of large scale social programs have found that the programs in question
had any net impact. The law also means that. based on the evaluation
efforts of the las twenty years. the best a priori estimate of the net impact
assessment of any program is zero, i.e., that the the program will have no
The Stainless Steel Law of Evaluation: The better designed the
impact assessment of social program. the more likely is the resulting
estimate of net impact to be zero.
This law means that the more technically rigorous the net impact
assessment. the more likely arc its results to be zero–ur no effect.
Specifically, this law implies that estimating net impacts through randomized
controlled experiments, the avowedly best approach to estimating
nd impacts. is more likely to show zero effects than other less
The Brass Law of Evaluation: The more social programs are designed
to change individuals, the more likely the net impact of the program will
This law means that social programs designed to rehabilitate individuals
by changing them in some way or another are more likely to fail. The
Brass Law may appear to be redundant since all programs, including those
designed to deal with individuals, are covered by the Iron Law. This
redundancy is intended to emphasize the especially difficult task faced in
designing and implementing effective programs that are designed to rehabilitate
The Zinc Law of Evaluation: Only those programs that are likely to
fail are evaluated.
Of the several metallic laws of evaluation, the zinc law has the most
optimistic slant since it implies that there are effective programs but that
such effective programs are never evaluated. It also implies that if a social
program is effective, that characteristic is obvious enough and hence
policy makers and others who sponsor and fund evaluations decide
It is possible to formulate a number of additional laws of evaluation,
each attached to one or another of a variety of substances varying in
strength ranging from strong, robust metals to flimsy materials. The substances
involved are only limited by one’s imagination. But, if such laws
are to mirror the major findings of the last two decades of evaluation
research they would all carry the same message: The laws would claim
that a review of the history of the last two decades of efforts to evaluate
major social programs in the United States sustain the proposition that
over this period the American establishment of policy makers, agency
officials, professionals and social scientists did not know how to design
and implement social programs that were minimally effective, let alone
HOW FIRM ARE THE METALLIC LAWS OF EVALUATION?
How seriously should we take the metallic laws? Are they simply the
social science analogue of poetic license, intended to provide dramatic
emphasis? Or, do the laws accurately summarize the last two decades’
First of all, viewed against the evidence, the iron law is not entirely
rigid. True, most impact assessments conform to the iron law’s dictates in
showing at best marginal effects and all too often no effects at all. There
are even a few evaluations that have shown effects in the wrong directions,
opposite to the desired effects. Some of the failures of large scale programs
have been particularly disappointing because of the large investments
of time and resources involved: Manpower retraining programs
have not been shown to improve earnings or employment prospects of
participants (Westat, 1976-1980). Most of the attempts to rehabilitate pris-
oners have failed to reduce recidivism (Lipton, Martinson, and Wilks, 1975).
Most educational innovations have not been shown to improve student
learning appreciably over traditional methods (Raizen and Rossi, 1981 ).
But, there are also many exceptions to the iron rule! The “iron” in the
Iron Law has shown itself to be somewhat spongy and therefore easily,
although not frequently, broken. Some social programs have shown
positive effects in the desired directions, and there are even some quite
spectacular successes: the American old age pension system plus Medicare
has dramatically improved the lives of our older citizens. Medicaid
has managed to deliver medical services to the poor to the extent that the
negative correlation between income and consumption of medical services
has declined dramatically since enactment. The family planning
clinics subsidized by the federal government were effective in reducing the
number of births in areas where they were implemented (Cutright and
Jaffe, 1977). There are also human services programs that have been shown
to be effective, although mainly on small scale, pilot runs: for example, the
Minneapolis Police Foundation experiment on the police handling of
family violence showed that if the police placed the offending abuser in
custody over night that the offender was less likely to show up as an
accused offender over the succeeding six months ( Sherman and Berk, 1984 ).
A meta-evaluation of psychotherapy showed that on the average, persons
in psychotherapy-no matter what brand-were a third of a standard
deviation improved over control groups that did not have any therapy
(Smith, Glass, and Miller, 1980). In most of the evaluations of manpower
training programs, women returning to the labor force benefitted
positively compared to women who did not take the courses, even though
in general such programs have not been successful. Even Head Start is
now beginning to show some positive benefits after many years of equivocal
findings. And so it goes on, through a relatively long list of successful
But even in the case of successful social programs, the sizes of the net
effects have not been spectacular. In the social program field, nothing has
yet been invented which is as effective in its way as the small pox vaccine
was for the field of public health. In short, as is well known (and widely
deplored) we arc not on the verge of wiping out the social scourges of our
time: ignorance, poverty, crime, dependency, or mental illness show great
promise to be with us for some time to come.
The Stainless Steel Law appears to be more likely to hold up over a
The Iron Law of Evaluation and Other Metallic Rules 7
large series of cases than the more general Iron Law. This is because the
fiercest competition as an explanation for the seeming success of any
program-especially human services programs-ordinarily is either selfor
administrator-selection of clients. In other words, if one finds that a
program appears to be effective, the most likely alternative explanation to
judging the program as the cause of that success is that the persons
attracted to that program were likely to get better on their own or that the
administrators of that program chose those who were already on the road
to recovery as clients. As the better research designs-particularly randomized
experiments-eliminate that competition, the less likely is a
program to show any positive net effect. So the better the research design,
the more likely the net impact assessment is likely to be zero.
How about the Zinc Law of Evaluation? First, it should be pointed out
that this law is impossible to verify in any literal sense. The only way that
one can be relatively certain that a program is effective is to evaluate it,
and hence the proposition that only ineffective programs are evaluated can
never be proven.
However, there is a sense in which the Zinc law is correct. If the a
priori, beyond-any-doubt expectations of decision makers and agency
heads is that a program will be effective, there is little chance that the
program will be evaluated at all. Our most successful social program,
social security payments to the aged has never been evaluated in a rigorous
sense. It is “well known” that the program manages to raise the incomes
of retired persons and their families, and “it stands to reason” that this
increase in income is greater than what would have happened, absent the
social security system.
Evaluation research is the legitimate child of skepticism, and where
there is faith, research is not called upon to make a judgment. Indeed, the
history of the income maintenance experiments bears this point out.
Those experiments were not undertaken to find out whether the main
purpose of the proposed program could be achieved: that is, no one
doubted that payments would provide income to poor people-indeed,
payments by definition are income, and even social scientists are not
inclined to waste resources investigating tautologies. Furthermore, no one
doubted that payments could be calculated and checks could be delivered
to households. The main purpose of the experiment was to estimate the
sizes of certain anticipated side effects of the payments, about which
economists and policy makers were uncertain-how much of a work
disincentive effect would be generated by the payments and whether the
payments would affect other aspects of the households in undesirable
ways-for instance, increasing the divorce rate among participants.
In short, when we look at the evidence for the metallic laws, the
evidence appears not to sustain their seemingly rigid character, but the
evidence does sustain the “laws” as statistical regularities. Why this
should be the case, is the topic to be explored in the remainder of this
IS THERE SOMETHING WRONG WITH EVALUATION RESEARCH?
A possibility that deserves very serious consideration is that there is
something radically wrong with the ways in which we go about conducting
evaluations. Indeed, this argument is the foundation of a revisionist school
of evaluation, composed of evaluators who are intent on calling into
question the main body of methodological procedures used in evaluation
research, especially those that emphasize quantitative and particularly
experimental approaches to the estimation of net impacts. The revisionists
include such persons as Michael Patton ( 1980) and Egon Guba (1981 ).
Some of the revisionists are reformed number crunchers who have seen
the errors of their ways and have been reborn as qualitative researchers.
Others have come from social science disciplines in which qualitative
ethnographic field methods have been dominant.
Although the issue of the appropriateness of social science methodology
is an important one, so far the revisionist arguments fall far short
of being fully convincing. At the root of the revisionist argument appears
to be that the revisionists find it difficult to accept the findings that most
social programs, when evaluated for impact assessment by rigorous quantitative
evaluation procedures, fail to register main effects: hence the
defects must be in the method of making the estimates. This argument per
se is an interesting one, and deserves attention: all procedures need to be
continually re-evaluated. There are some obvious deficiencies in most
evaluations, some of which are inherent in the procedures employed. For
example, a program that is constantly changing and evolving cannot
ordinarily be rigorously evaluated since the treatment to be evaluated
cannot be clearly defined. Such programs either require new evaluation
procedures or should not be evaluated at all.
The weakness of the revisionist approaches lies in their proposed
solutions to these deficiencies. Criticizing quantitative approaches for
their woodenness and inflexibility, they propose to replace current methods
with procedures that have even greater and more obvious deficiencies.
The qualitative approaches they propose are not exempt from issues of
internal and external validity and ordinarily do not attempt to address
these thorny problems. Indeed, the procedures which they advance as
substitutes for the mainstream methodology are usually vaguely des-
scribed, constituting an almost mystical advocacy of the virtues of qualitative
approaches, without clear discussion of the specific ways in which
such procedures meet validity criteria. In addition, many appear to adopt
program operator perspectives on effectiveness, reasoning that any effort
to improve social conditions must have some effect, with the burden of
proof placed on the evaluation researcher to find out what those effects
Although many of their arguments concerning the woodenness of many
quantitative researches are cogent and well taken, the main revisionist
arguments for an alternative methodology are unconvincing: hence one
must look elsewhere than to evaluation methodology for the reasons for
the failure of social programs to pass muster before the bar of impact
SOURCES OF PROGRAM FAILURES
Starting with the conviction that the many findings of zero impact are real,
we are led inexorably to the conclusion that the faults must lie in the
programs. Three kinds of failure can be identified, each a major source of
the observed lack of impact:
The first two types of faults that lead a program to fail stem from
problems in social science theory and the third is a problem in the
organization of social programs:
I. Faults in Problem Theory: The program is built upon a faulty understanding
of the social processes that give rise to the problem to
which the social program is ostensibly addressed;
2. Faults in Program Theory: The program is built upon a faulty
understanding of how to translate problem theory into specific
3. Faults in Program Implementation: There are faults in the organizations,
resources levels and/or activities that are used to deliver
the program to its intended beneficiaries.
Note that the term theory is used above in a fairly loose way to cover all
sorts of empirically grounded generalized knowledge about a topic, and is
not limited to formal propositions.
Every social program, implicitly or explicitly is based on some understanding
of the social problem involved and some understanding of the
program. If one fails to arrive at an appropriate understanding of either,
the program in question will undoubtedly fail. In addition, every program
is given to some organization to implement. Failures to provide enough
resources, or to insure that the program is delivered with sufficient fidelity
can also lead to findings of ineffectiveness.
Problem theory consists of the body of empirically tested understanding
of the social problem that underlies the design of the program in
question. For example, the problem theory that was the underpinning for
the many attempts at prisoner rehabilitation tried in the last two decades
was that criminality was a personality disorder. Even though there was a
lot of evidence for this viewpoint, it also turned out that the theory is not
relevant either to understanding crime rates or to the design of crime
policy. The changes in crime rates do not reflect massive shifts in personality
characteristics of the American population, nor does the personality
disorder theory of crime lead to clear implications for crime reduction
policies. Indeed, it is likely that large scale personality changes are beyond
the reach of social policy institutions in a democratic society.
The adoption of this theory is quite understandable. For example, how
else do we account for the fact that persons seemingly exposed to the
same influences do not show the same criminal (or noncriminal) tendencies?
But the theory is not useful for understanding the social distribution
of crime rates by gender, socio-economic level, or by age.
Program theory links together the activities that constitute a social
program and desired program outcomes. Obviously, program theory is
also linked to problem theory, but is partially independent. For example,
given the problem theory that diagnosed criminality is a personality disorder,
a matching program theory would have as its aims personality
change oriented therapy. But there are many specific ways in which
therapy can be defined and at many different points in the life history of
individuals. At the one extreme of the lifeline, one might attempt preventive
mental health work directed toward young children: at the other
extreme, one might provide psychiatric treatment for prisoners or set up
therapeutic groups in prison for convicted offenders.
The third major source of failure is organizational in character and has
to do with the failure to implement properly programs. Human services
programs are notoriously difficult to deliver appropriately to the appropriate
clients. A well designed program that is based on correct problem and
program theories may simply be implemented improperly, including not
implementing any program at all. Indeed, in the early days of the War on
Proverty, many examples were found of non-programs-the failure to
implement anything at all.
Note that these three sources of failure are nested to some degree:
1. An incorrect understanding of the social problem being addressed
is clearly a major failure that invalidates a correct program theory
and an excellent implementation.
2. No matter how good the problem theory may be, an inappropriate
program theory will lead to failure.
3. And, no matter how good the problem and program theories, a
poor implementation will also lead to failure.
Sources of Theory Failure
A major reason for failures produced through incorrect problem and
program theories lies in the serious under-development of policy related
social science theories in many of the basic disciplines. The major problem
with much basic social science is that social scientists have tended to
ignore policy related variables in building theories because policy related
variables account for so little of the variance in the behavior in question.It
does not help the construction of social policy any to know that a major
determinant of criminality is age, because there is little, if anything, that
policy can do about the age distribution of a population, given a committment
to our current democratic, liberal values. There are notable exceptions
to this generalization about social science: economics and political
science have always been closely attentive to policy considerations; this
indictment concerns mainly such fields as sociology, anthropology and
Incidentally, this generalization about social science and social scientists
should warn us not to expect too much from changes in social policy.
This implication is quite important and will be taken up later on in this
But the major reason why programs fail through failures in problem and
program theories is that the designers of programs are ordinarily amateurs
who know even less than the social scientists! There are numerous examples
of social programs that were concocted by well meaning amateurs
(but amateurs nevertheless). A prime example are Community Mental
Health Centers, an invention of the Kennedy administration, apparently
undertaken without any input from the National Institute of Mental
Health, the agency that was given the mandate to administer the program.
Similarly with Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) and
its successor, the current Job Partnership Training Act (JPTA) program,
both of which were designed by rank amateurs and then given over to the
Department of Labor to run and administer. Of course, some of the
amateurs were advised by social scientists about the programs in question,
so the social scientists are not completely blameless.
The amateurs in question are the legislators, judicial officials, and other
policy makers who initiate policy and program changes. The main problem
with amateurs lies not so much in their amateur status but in the fact
that they may know little or nothing about the problem in question or
about the programs they design. Social science may not be an extraordinarily
well developed set of disciplines, but social scientists do know
something about our society and how it works, knowledge that can prove
useful in the design of policy and programs that may have a chance to be
Our social programs seemingly are designed by procedures that lie
somewhere in between setting monkeys to typing mindlessly on typewriters
in the hope that additional Shakespearean plays will eventually be
produced, and Edisonian trial-and-error procedures in which one tactic
after another is tried in the hope of finding out some method that works.
Although the Edisonian paradigm is not highly regarded as a scientific
strategy by the philosophers of science, there is much to recommend it in
a historical period in which good theory is yet to develop. It is also a
strategy that allows one to learn from errors. Indeed, evaluation is very
much a part of an Edisonian strategy of starting new programs, and
attempting to learn from each trial.
PROBLEM THEORY FAILURES
One of the more persistent failures in problem theory is to under-estimate
the complexity of the social world. Most of the social problems with which
we deal are generated by very complex causal processes involving interactions
of a very complex sort among societal level, community level, and
individual level processes. In all likelihood there are biological level processes
involved as well, however much our liberal ideology is repelled by
the idea. The consequence of under-estimating the complexity of the
problem is often to over-estimate our abilities to affect the amount and
course of the problem. This means that we are overly optimistic about how
much of an effect even the best of social programs can expect to achieve. It
also means that we under-design our evaluations, running the risk of
committing Type II errors: that is, not having enough statistical power in
our evaluation research designs to be able to detect reliably those small
effects that we are likely to encounter.
It is instructive to consider the example of the problem of crime in our
society. In the last two decades, we have learned a great deal about the
crime problem through our attempts by initiating one social program aft~r
another to halt the rising crime rate in our society. The end result of this
series of trials has largely failed to have significant impacts on the crime
rates. The research effort has yielded a great deal of empirical knowledge
about crime and criminals. For example, we now know a great deal about
the demographic characteristics of criminals and their victims. But, we
still have only the vaguest ideas about why the crime rates rose so steeply
in the period between 1970 and 1980 and, in the last few years, have started
what appears to be a gradual decline. We have also learned that the
criminal justice system has been given an impossible task to perform and,
indeed, practices a wholesale form of deception in which everyone acquiesces.
It has been found that most perpetrators of most criminal acts go
undetected, when detected go unprosecuted, and when prosecuted go
unpunished, Furthermore, most prosecuted and sentenced criminals are
dealt with by plea bargaining procedures that are just in the last decade
getting formal recognition as occurring at all. After decades of sub-rosa
existence, plea bargaining is beginning to get official recognition in the
criminal code and judicial interpretations of that code.
But most of what we have learned in the past two decades amounts to a
better description of the crime problem and the criminal justice system as
it presently functions. There is simply no doubt about the importance of
this detailed information: it is going to be the foundation of our understanding
of crime; but, it is not yet the basis upon which to build policies
and programs that can lessen the burden of crime in our society.
Perhaps the most important lesson learned from the descriptive and
evaluative researches of the past two decades is that crime and criminals
appear to be relatively insensitive to the range of policy and program
changes that have been evaluated in this period. This means that the
prospects for substantial improvements in the crime problem appear to be
slight, unless we gain better theoretical understanding of crime and criminals.
That is why the Iron Law of Evaluation appears to be an excellent
generalization for the field of social programs aimed at reducing crime and
leading criminals to the straight and narrow way of life. The knowledge
base for developing effective crime policies and programs simply does not
exist; and hence in this field, we are condemned-hopefully temporarilyto
Edisonian trial and error.
PROGRAM THEORY AND IMPLEMENTATION FAILURES
As defined earlier, program theory failures are translations of a proper
understanding of a problem into inappropriate programs, and program
implementation failures arise out of defects in the delivery system used.
Although in principle it is possible to distinguish program theory failures
from program implementation failures, in practice it is difficult to do so.
For example, a correct program may be incorrectly delivered, and hence
would constitute a “pure” example of implementation failure, but it would
be difficult to identify this case as such, unless there were some instances
of correct delivery. Hence both program theory and program implementation
failures will be discussed together in this section.
These kinds of failure are likely the most common causes of ineffective
programs in many fields. There are many ways in which program theory
and program implementation failures can occur. Some of the more common
ways are listed below.
This occurs when the treatment is simply a seriously flawed translation
of the problem theory into a program. One of the best examples is the
housing allowance experiment in which the experimenters attempted to
motivate poor households to move into higher quality housing by offering
them a rent subsidy, contingent on their moving into housing that met
certain quality standards (Struyk and Bendick, 1981). The experimenters
found that only a small portion of the poor households to whom this offer
was made actually moved to better housing and thereby qualified for and
received housing subsidy payments. After much econometric calculation,
this unexpected outcome was found to have been apparently generated by
the fact that the experimenters unfortunately did not take into account
that the costs of moving were far from zero. When the anticipated dollar
benefits from the subsidy were compared to the net benefits, after taking
into account the costs of moving, the net benefits were in a very large
proportion of the cases uncomfortably close to zero and in some instances
negative. Furthermore, the housing standards applied almost totally
missed the point. They were technical standards that often characterized
housing as sub-standard that was quite acceptable to the households
involved. In other words, these were standards that were regarded as
irrelevant by the clients. It was unreasonable to assume that households
would undertake to move when there was no push of dissatisfaction from
the housing occupied and no substantial net positive benefit in dollar
terms for doing so. Incidentally, the fact that poor families with little
formal education were able to make decisions that were consistent with
the outcomes of highly technical econometric calculations improves one’s
appreciation of the innate intellectual abilities of that population.
Right Treatment But Insufficient Dosage
A very recent set of trial policing programs in Houston, Texas and
Newark, New Jersey exemplifies how programs may fail not so much
because they were administering the wrong treatment but because the
treatment was frail and puny (Police Foundation, 1985). Part of the goals of
the program was to produce a more positive evaluation of local police
departments in the views of local residents. Several different treatments
were attempted. In Houston, the police attempted to meet the presumed
needs of victims of crime by having a police officer call them up a week of
so after a crime complaint was received to ask “how they were doing” and
to offer help in “any way.” Over a period of a year, the police managed to
contact about 230 victims, but the help they could offer consisted mainly
of referrals to other agencies. Furthermore, the crimes in question were
mainly property thefts without personal contact between victims and
offenders, with the main request for aid being requests to speed up the
return of their stolen property. Anyone who knows even a little bit about
property crime in the United States would know that the police do little or
nothing to recover stolen property mainly because there is no way they can
do so. Since the callers from the police department could not offer any
substantial aid to remedy the problems caused by the crimes in question,
the treatment delivered by the program was essentially zero. It goes
without saying that those contacted by the police officers did not differ
from randomly selected controls-who had also been victimized but who
had not been called by the police-in their evaluation of the Houston
It seems likely that the treatment administered, namely expressions of
concern for the victims of crime, administered in a personal face-to-face
way, would have been effective if the police could have offered substantial
help to the victims.
Counter-acting Delivery System
It is obvious that any program consists not only of the treatment
intended to be delivered, but it also consists of the delivery system and
whatever is done to clients in the delivery of services. Thus the income
maintenance experiments’ treatments consist not only of the payments,
but the entire system of monthly income reports required of the clients,
the quarterly interviews and the annual income reviews, as well as the
payment system and its rules. In that particular case, it is likely that the
payments dominated the payment system, but in other cases that might
not be so, with the delivery system profoundly altering the impact of the
Perhaps the most egregious example was the group counselling program
run in California prisons during the 1960s (Kassebaum, Ward, and
Wilner, 1972). Guards and other prison employees were used as counseling
group leaders, in sessions in which all participants-prisoners and
guards-were asked to be frank and candid with each other! There are
many reasons for the abysmal failure3 of this program to affect either
criminals’ behavior within prison or during their subsequent period of
parole, but among the leading contenders for the role of villain was the
prison system’s use of guards as therapists.
Another example is the failure of transitional aid payments to released
prisoners when the payment system was run by the state employment
security agency, in contrast to the strong positive effect found when run by
researchers (Rossi, Berk, and Lenihan, 1980). In a randomized experiment
run by social researchers in Baltimore, the provision of 3 months of
minimal support payments lowered the re-arrest rate by 8 percent, a small
decrement, but a significant one that was calculated to have very high cost
to benefit ratios. When, the Department of Labor wisely decided that
another randomized experiment should be run to see whether YOAA”
Your Ordinary American Agency”-could achieve the same results,
large scale experiments in Texas and Georgia showed that putting the
treatment in the hands of the employment security agencies in those two
states cancelled the positive effects of the treatment. The procedure which
produced the failure was a simple one: the payments were made contingent
on being unemployed, as the employment security agencies usually
administered unemployment benefits, creating a strong work disincentive
effect with the unfortunate consequence of a longer period of unemployment
for experimentals as compared to their randomized controls and
hence a higher than expected re-arrest rate.
Pilot and Production Runs
The last example can be subsumed under a more general point — namely,
given that a treatment is effective in a pilot test does not mean that
when turned over to YOAA, effectiveness can be maintained. This is the
lesson to be derived from the transitional aid experiments in Texas and
Georgia and from programs such as The Planned Variation teaching demonstration.
In the latter program leading teaching specialists were asked to
develop versions of their teaching methods to be implemented in actual
school systems. Despite generous support and willing cooperation from
their schools, the researchers were unable to get workable versions of
their teaching strategies into place until at least a year into the running of
the program. There is a big difference between running a program on a
small scale with highly skilled and very devoted personnel and running a
program with the lesser skilled and less devoted personnel that YOAA
ordinarily has at its disposal. Programs that appear to be very promising
when run by the persons who developed them, often turn out to be
disappointments when turned over to line agencies.
Inadequate Reward System
The internally defined reward system of an organization has a strong
effect on what activities are assiduously pursued and those that are
characterized by “benign neglect.” The fact that an agency is directed to
engage in some activity does not mean that it will do so unless the reward
system within that organization actively fosters compliance. Indeed, there
are numerous examples of reward systems that do not foster compliance.
Perhaps one of the best examples was the experience of several police
departments with the decriminalization of public intoxification. Both the
District of Columbia and Minneapolis-among other jurisdictions-rescinded
their ordinances that defined public drunkenness as misdemeanors,
setting up detoxification centers to which police were asked to
bring persons who were found to be drunk on the streets. Under the old
system, police patrols would arrest drunks and bring them into the local
jail for an overnight stay. The arrests so made would “count” towards the
department measures of policing activity. Patrolmen were motivated
thereby to pick up drunks and book them into the local jail, especially in
periods when other arrest opportunities were slight. In contrast, under the
new system, the handling of drunks did not count towards an officer’s
arrest record. The consequence: Police did not bring drunks into the new
detoxification centers and the municipalities eventually had to set up
separate service systems to rustle up clients for the dextoxification
The illustrations given above should be sufficient to make the general
point that the apropriate implementation of social programs is a problematic
matter. This is especially the case for programs that rely on persons to
deliver the service in question. There is no doubt that federal, state, and
local agencies can calculate and deliver checks with precision and efficiency.
There also can be little doubt that such agencies can maintain a
physical infra-structure that delivers public services efficiently, even
though there are a few examples of the failure of water and sewer systems
on scales that threaten public health. But there is a lot of doubt that human
services that are tailored to differences among individual clients can be
done well at all on a large scale basis.
We know that public education is not doing equally well in facilitating
the learning of all children. We know that our mental health system does
not often succeed in treating the chronically mentally ill in a consistent
and effective fashion. This does not mean that some children cannot be
educated or that the chronically mentally ill cannot be treated-it does
mean that our ability to do these activities on a mass scale is somewhat in
This paper started out with a recital of the several metallic laws stating
that evaluations of social programs have rarely found them to be effective
in achieving their desired goals. The discussion modified the metallic laws
to express them as statistical tendencies rather than rigid and inflexible
laws to which all evaluations must strictly adhere. In this latter sense, the
laws simply do not hold. However, when stripped of their rigidity, the laws
can be seen to be valid as statistical generalizations, fairly accurately
representing what have been the end results of evaluations “on-the-average.”
In short, few large-scale social programs have been found to be even
minimally effective. There have been even fewer programs found to be spectacularly
effective. There are no social science equivalents of the Salk vaccine.
Were this conclusion the only message of this paper, then it would tell a
dismal tale indeed. But there is a more important message in the examination
of the reasons why social programs fail so often. In this connection,
the paper pointed out two deficiencies:
First, policy relevant social science theory that should be the intellectual
underpinning of our social policies and programs is either deficient or
simply missing. Effective social policies and programs cannot be designed
consistently until it is thoroughly understood how changes in policies and
programs can affect the social problems in question. The social policies
and programs that we have tested have been designed, at best, on the basis
of common sense and perhaps intelligent guesses, a weak foundation for
the construction of effective policies and programs.
In order to make progress, we need to deepen our understanding of the
long range and proximate causation of our social problems and our understanding
about how active interventions might alleviate the burdens of
those problems. This is not simply a call for more funds for social science
research but also a call for a redirection of social science research toward
understanding how public policy can affect those problems.
Second, in pointing to the frequent failures in the implementation of
social programs, especially those that involve labor intensive delivery of
services, we may also note an important missing professional activity in
those fields. The physical sciences have their engineering counterparts;
the biological sciences have their health care professionals; but social
science has neither an engineering nor a strong clinical component. To be
sure, we have clinical psychology, education, social work, public administration,
and law as our counterparts to engineering, but these are only
weakly connected with basic social science. What is apparently needed is
a new profession of social and organizational engineering devoted to the
design of human services delivery systems that can deliver treatments
with fidelity and effectiveness.
In short, the double message of this paper is an argument for
further development of policy relevant basic social science and the establishment
of the new profession of social engineer.
I. Note that the law emphasizes that it applied primarily to “large scale” social
programs, primarily those that are implemented by an established governmental agency
covering a region or the nation as a whole. It does not apply to small scale demonstrations or to programs run by their designers.
2. Unfortunately, it has proven difficult to stop large scale programs even when evaluations prove them to be ineffective. The federal job training programs seem remarkably resistant to the almost consistent verdicts of ineffectiveness. This limitation on the Edisonian paradigm arises out of the tendency for large scale programs to accumulate staff and clients that have extensive stakes in the program’s continuation.
3. This is a complex example in which there are many competing explanations for the
failure of the program. In the first place, the program may be a good example of the failure of problem theory since the program was ultimately based on a theory of criminal behavior as psychopathology. In the second place, the program theory may have been at fault for employing counselling as a treatment. This example illustrates how difficult it is to separate out the three sources of program failures in specific instances.
Cutright, P. and F. S. Jaffe
1977 Impact of Family Planning Programs on Fertility: The U.S. Experience. New
Guba, E. G. and Y. S. Lincoln
1981 Effective Evaluation: Improving the Usefulness of Evaluation Results Through
Responsive and Naturalistic Approaches. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Kassebaum, G., D. Ward, and D. Wilner
1971 Prison Treatment and Parole Survival. New York: John Wiley.
Lipton, D., R. Martinson, and L. Wilks
1975 The Effectiveness of Correctional Treatment. New York: Praeger.
1980 Qualitative Evaluation Methods. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.
1985 Evaluation of Newark and Houston Policing Experiments. Washington, DC.
Raizen, S. A. and P. H. Rossi (eds.)
1980 Program Evaluation in Education: When? How? To What Ends? Washington,
DC: National Academy Press.
Rossi, P. H., R. A. Berk and K. J. Lenihan
1980 Money, Work and Crime. New York: Academic.
Sherman, L. W. and R. A. Berk.
1984. “Deterrent effects of arrest for domestic assault.” American Sociological Review
Smith, M. L., G. V. Glass, and T. I. Miller
1980 The Benefits of Psychotherapy: An Evaluation. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins
Struyk, R. J. and M. Bendick
1981 Housing Vouchers for the Poor. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.
1976- Continuous Longitudinal Manpower Survey, Reports 1-10. Rockville, MD:
1980 Westat, Inc.
This post is a review essay of a new book called Research Universities and the Public Good. It appeared in the current issue of American Journal of Sociology. Here’s a link to a PDF of the original.
Research Universities and the Public Good: Discovery for an Uncertain Future
By Jason Owen-Smith. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press,
2018. Pp. xii + 213. $35.00.
David F. Labaree
American higher education has long been immune to the kind of criticism
levied against elementary and secondary education because it has been seen
as a great success story, in contrast to the popular narrative of failure that
has been applied to the lower levels of the system. And the rest of the world
seems to agree with this distinction. Families outside the United States have
not been eager to send their children to our schools, but they have been
clamoring for admission to the undergraduate and graduate programs at
our colleges and universities. In the last few years, however, this reputational
immunity has been quickly fading. The relentlessly rationalizing reformers
who have done so much harm to U.S. schools in the name of accountability
have now started to direct their attention to higher education. Watch out,
they’re coming for us.
One tiny sector of the huge and remarkably diverse structure of U.S.
higher education has been particularly vulnerable to this contagion, namely,
the research university. This group represents only 3% of the more than
5,000 degree-granting institutions in the country, and it educates only a
small percentage of college students while sucking up a massive amount of
public and private resources. Its highly paid faculty don’t teach very much,
instead focusing their time instead on producing research on obscure topics
published in journals for the perusal of their colleagues rather than the public.
No wonder state governments have been reducing their funding for public
research universities and the federal government has been cutting its support
for research. No wonder there are strong calls for disaggregating the
multiplicity of functions that make these institutions so complex, so that
the various services of the university can be delivered more cost-effectively
In his new book, Jason Owen-Smith, a sociology professor at the University
of Michigan, mounts a valiant and highly effective defense of the apparently
indefensible American research university. While acknowledging the
complexity of functions that run through these institutions, he focuses his
attention primarily on the public benefits that derive from their research
production. As he notes, although they represent less than 3% of the institutions
of higher education, they produce nearly 90% of the system’s research and development. In an era when education is increasingly portrayed as primarily a private good—providing degrees whose benefits only accrue to the degree holders—he deliberately zeroes in on the way that university research constitutes a public good whose benefits accrue to the community as a whole.
He argues that the core public functions of the research university are to
serve as “sources of knowledge and skilled people, anchors for communities,
industries, and regions, and hubs connecting all of the far-flung parts of society”
(p. 1; original emphasis). In chapter 1 he spells out the overall argument,
in chapter 2 he explores the usefulness of the peculiarly complex
organization of the research university, in chapters 3–5 he examines in more
detail each of the core functions, and at the end he suggests ways that university
administrators can help position their institutions to demonstrate
the value they provide the public.
The core function is to produce knowledge and skill. The most telling
point the author makes about this function is that it works best if allowed
to emerge organically from the complex incentive structure of the university
itself instead of being directed by government or industry toward solving
the most current problems. Trying to make research relevant may well
make it dysfunctional. Mie Augier and James March (“The Pursuit of Relevance
in Management Education,” California Management Review 49
: 129–46) argue that the pursuit of relevance is afflicted by both ambiguity
(we don’t know what’s going to be relevant until we encounter the
next problem) and myopia (by focusing too tightly on the current case we
miss what it is a case of ). In short, as Owen-Smith notes, investing in research
universities is a kind of social insurance by which we develop answers
to problems that haven’t yet emerged.While the private sector focuses
on applied research that is likely to have immediate utility, public funds are
most needed to support the basic research whose timeline for utility is unknown
but whose breadth of benefit is much greater.
The second function of the research university is to serve as a regional anchor.
A creative tension that energizes this institution is that it’s both cosmopolitan
and local. It aspires to universal knowledge, but it’s deeply grounded
in place. Companies can move, but universities can’t. This isn’t just because
of physical plant, a constraint that also affects companies; it’s because universities
develop a complex web of relationships with the industries and governments
and citizens in their neighborhood. Think Stanford and Silicon
Valley. Owen-Smith makes the analogy to the anchor store in a shopping
The third function of the research university is to serve as a hub, which is
the cosmopolitan side of its relationship with the world. It’s located in place
but connected to the intellectual and economic world through a complex
web of networks. Like the university itself, these webs emerge organically
out of the actions of a vast array of actors pursuing their own research enterprises
and connecting with colleagues and funding sources and clients
and sites of application around the country and the globe. Research
universities are uniquely capable of convening people from all sectors
around issues of mutual interest. Such synergies benefit everyone.
The current discourse on universities, which narrowly conceives of them
as mechanisms for delivering degrees to students, desperately needs the
message that Owen-Smith delivers here. Students may be able to get a degree
through a cheap online program, but only the complex and costly system
of research universities can deliver the kinds of knowledge production,
community development, and network building that provide such invaluable
benefits for the public as a whole. One thing I would add to the author’s
analysis is that American research universities have been able to develop
such strong public support in the past in large part because they combine
top-flight scholarship with large programs of undergraduate education that
are relatively accessible to the public and rather undemanding intellectually.
Elite graduate programs and research projects rest on a firm populist base
that may help the university survive the current assaults, a base grounded
as much in football and fraternities as in the erudition of its faculty. This,
however, is but a footnote to this powerfully framed contribution to the literature
on U.S. higher education.
American Journal of Sociology, 125:2 (September, 2019), pp. 610-12
Metaphor is an indispensable tool for the writer. It carries out an essential function by connecting what you’re talking about with other related issues that the reader already recognizes. This provides a comparative perspective, which gives a richer context for the issue at hand. Metaphor also introduces a playful characterization of the issue by making figurative comparisons that are counter-intuitive, finding similarities in things that are apparently opposite. The result is to provoke the reader’s thinking in ways that straightforward exposition cannot.
Metaphors can — and often do — go disastrously wrong. Here’s Bryan Garner on the subject: “Skillful use of metaphor is one of the highest attainments of writing; graceless and even aesthetically offensive use of metaphors is one of the commonest scourges of writing.” A particular problem, especially for academics, is using a shopworn metaphor that has become a cliché, which has lost all value through overuse. Cases in point: lens; interrogate; path; bottom line; no stone unturned; weighing the evidence.
In this post, I provide two pieces that speak to the issue of metaphors. One is a section on the subject from Bryan Garner’s Modern American Usage, which provides some great examples of metaphor gone bad. A second is an extended excerpt from Matt Taibbi’s delightfully vicious takedown of Thomas Friedman’s best-seller, The World Is Flat.
Bryan Garner on Metaphor
METAPHORS. A. Generally. A metaphor is a figure of speech in which one thing is called by the name of something else, or is said to be that other thing. Unlike similes, which use like or as, metaphorical comparisons are implicit—not explicit. Skillful use of metaphor is one of the highest attainments of writing; graceless and even aesthetically offensive use of metaphors is one of the commonest scourges of writing.
Although a graphic phrase often lends both force and compactness to writing, it must seem contextually agreeable. That is, speaking technically, the vehicle of the metaphor (i.e., the literal sense of the metaphorical language) must accord with the tenor of the metaphor (i.e., the ultimate, metaphorical sense), which is to say that the means must fit the end. To illustrate the distinction between the vehicle and the tenor of a metaphor, in the statement that essay is a patchwork quilt without discernible design, the makeup of the essay is the tenor, and the quilt is the vehicle. It is the comparison of the tenor with the vehicle that makes or breaks a metaphor.
A writer would be ill advised, for example, to use rustic metaphors in a discussion of the problems of air pollution, which is essentially a problem of the bigger cities and outlying areas. Doing that mismatches the vehicle with the tenor.
- Mixed Metaphors. The most embarrassing problem with metaphors occurs when one metaphor crowds another. It can happen with CLICHÉS—e.g.:
- “It’s on a day like this that the cream really rises to the crop.” (This mingles the cream rises to the top with the cream of the crop.)
- “He’s really got his hands cut out for him.” (This mingles he’s got his hands full with he’s got his work cut out for him.)
- “This will separate the men from the chaff.” (This mingles separate the men from the boys with separate the wheat from the chaff.)
- “It will take someone willing to pick up the gauntlet and run with it.” (This mingles pick up the gauntlet with pick up the ball and run with it.)
- “From now on, I am watching everything you do with a fine-toothed comb.” (Watching everything you do isn’t something that can occur with a fine-toothed comb.)
The purpose of an image is to fix the idea in the reader’s or hearer’s mind. If jarringly disparate images appear together, the audience is left confused or sometimes laughing, at the writer’s expense.
The following classic example comes from a speech by Boyle Roche in the Irish Parliament, delivered in about 1790: “Mr. Speaker, I smell a rat. I see him floating in the air. But mark me, sir, I will nip him in the bud.” Perhaps the supreme example of the comic misuse of metaphor occurred in the speech of a scientist who referred to “a virgin field pregnant with possibilities.”
- Dormant Metaphors. Dormant metaphors sometimes come alive in contexts in which the user had no intention of reviving them. In the following examples, progeny, outpouring, and behind their backs are dormant metaphors that, in most contexts, don’t suggest their literal meanings. But when they’re used with certain concrete terms, the results can be jarring—e.g.:
- “This Note examines the doctrine set forth in Roe v. Wade and its progeny.” “Potential Fathers and Abortion,” 55 Brooklyn L. Rev. 1359, 1363 (1990). (Roe v. Wade, of course, legalized abortion.)
- “The slayings also have generated an outpouring of hand wringing from Canada’s commentators.” Anne Swardson, “In Canada, It Takes Only Two Deaths,” Wash. Post (Nat’l Weekly ed.), 18–24 Apr. 1994, at 17. (Hand-wringing can’t be poured.)
- “But managers at Hyland Hills have found that, for whatever reasons, more and more young skiers are smoking behind their backs. And they are worried that others are setting a bad example.” Barbara Lloyd, “Ski Area Cracks Down on Smoking,” N.Y. Times, 25 Jan. 1996, at B13. (It’s a fire hazard to smoke behind your back.)
Yet another pitfall for the unwary is the CLICHÉ-metaphor that the writer renders incorrectly, as by writing taxed to the breaking point instead of stretched to the breaking point.
Garner, Bryan. Garner’s Modern American Usage (pp. 534-535). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
Matt Taibbi on The World Is Flat
Start with the title.
The book’s genesis is a conversation Friedman has with Nandan Nilekani, the CEO of Infosys. Nilekani caually mutters to Friedman: “Tom, the playing field is being leveled.” To you and me, an innocent throwaway phrase–the level playing field being, after all, one of the most oft-repeated stock ideas in the history of human interaction. Not to Friedman. Ten minutes after his talk with Nilekani, he is pitching a tent in his company van on the road back from the Infosys campus in Bangalore:
As I left the Infosys campus that evening along the road back to Bangalore, I kept chewing on that phrase: “The playing field is being leveled.” What Nandan is saying, I thought, is that the playing field is being flattened… Flattened? Flattened? My God, he’s telling me the world is flat!
This is like three pages into the book, and already the premise is totally fucked. Nilekani said level, not flat. The two concepts are completely different. Level is a qualitative idea that implies equality and competitive balance; flat is a physical, geographic concept that Friedman, remember, is openly contrasting–ironically, as it were–with Columbus’s discovery that the world is round.
Except for one thing. The significance of Columbus’s discovery was that on a round earth, humanity is more interconnected than on a flat one. On a round earth, the two most distant points are closer together than they are on a flat earth. But Friedman is going to spend the next 470 pages turning the “flat world” into a metaphor for global interconnectedness. Furthermore, he is specifically going to use the word round to describe the old, geographically isolated, unconnected world.
“Let me… share with you some of the encounters that led me to conclude that the world is no longer round,” he says. He will literally travel backward in time, against the current of human knowledge.
To recap: Friedman, imagining himself Columbus, journeys toward India. Columbus, he notes, traveled in three ships; Friedman “had Lufthansa business class.” When he reaches India–Bangalore to be specific–he immediately plays golf. His caddy, he notes with interest, wears a cap with the 3M logo. Surrounding the golf course are billboards for Texas Instruments and Pizza Hut. The Pizza Hut billboard reads: “Gigabites of Taste.” Because he sees a Pizza Hut ad on the way to a golf course, something that could never happen in America, Friedman concludes: “No, this definitely wasn’t Kansas.”
After golf, he meets Nilekani, who casually mentions that the playing field is level. A nothing phrase, but Friedman has traveled all the way around the world to hear it. Man travels to India, plays golf, sees Pizza Hut billboard, listens to Indian CEO mutter small talk, writes 470-page book reversing the course of 2000 years of human thought. That he misattributes his thesis to Nilekani is perfect: Friedman is a person who not only speaks in malapropisms, he also hears malapropisms. Told level; heard flat. This is the intellectual version of Far Out Space Nuts, when NASA repairman Bob Denver sets a whole sitcom in motion by pressing “launch” instead of “lunch” in a space capsule. And once he hits that button, the rocket takes off.
And boy, does it take off. Predictably, Friedman spends the rest of his huge book piling one insane image on top of the other, so that by the end–and I’m not joking here–we are meant to understand that the flat world is a giant ice-cream sundae that is more beef than sizzle, in which everyone can fit his hose into his fire hydrant, and in which most but not all of us are covered with a mostly good special sauce. Moreover, Friedman’s book is the first I have encountered, anywhere, in which the reader needs a calculator to figure the value of the author’s metaphors.
God strike me dead if I’m joking about this. Judge for yourself. After the initial passages of the book, after Nilekani has forgotten Friedman and gone back to interacting with the sane, Friedman begins constructing a monstrous mathematical model of flatness. The baseline argument begins with a lengthy description of the “ten great flatteners,” which is basically a highlight reel of globalization tomahawk dunks from the past two decades: the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the Netscape IPO, the pre-Y2K outsourcing craze, and so on. Everything that would give an IBM human resources director a boner, that’s a flattener. The catch here is that Flattener #10 is new communications technology: “Digital, Mobile, Personal, and Virtual.” These technologies Friedman calls “steroids,” because they are “amplifying and turbocharging all the other flatteners.”
According to the mathematics of the book, if you add an IPac to your offshoring, you go from running to sprinting with gazelles and from eating with lions to devouring with them. Although these 10 flatteners existed already by the time Friedman wrote “The Lexus and the Olive Tree”–a period of time referred to in the book as Globalization 2.0, with Globalization 1.0 beginning with Columbus–they did not come together to bring about Globalization 3.0, the flat world, until the 10 flatteners had, with the help of the steroids, gone through their “Triple Convergence.” The first convergence is the merging of software and hardware to the degree that makes, say, the Konica Minolta Bizhub (the product featured in Friedman’s favorite television commercial) possible. The second convergence came when new technologies combined with new ways of doing business. The third convergence came when the people of certain low-wage industrial countries–India, Russia, China, among others–walked onto the playing field. Thanks to steroids, incidentally, they occasionally are “not just walking” but “jogging and even sprinting” onto the playing field.
Now let’s say that the steroids speed things up by a factor of two. It could be any number, but let’s be conservative and say two. The whole point of the book is to describe the journey from Globalization 2.0 (Friedman’s first bestselling book) to Globalization 3.0 (his current bestselling book). To get from 2.0 to 3.0, you take 10 flatteners, and you have them converge–let’s say this means squaring them, because that seems to be the idea–three times. By now, the flattening factor is about a thousand. Add a few steroids in there, and we’re dealing with a flattening factor somewhere in the several thousands at any given page of the book. We’re talking about a metaphor that mathematically adds up to a four-digit number. If you’re like me, you’re already lost by the time Friedman starts adding to this numerical jumble his very special qualitative descriptive imagery. For instance:
And now the icing on the cake, the ubersteroid that makes it all mobile: wireless. Wireless is what allows you to take everything that has been digitized, made virtual and personal, and do it from anywhere. Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you a Thomas Friedman metaphor, a set of upside-down antlers with four thousand points: the icing on your uber-steroid-flattener-cake!
Let’s speak Friedmanese for a moment and examine just a few of the notches on these antlers (Friedman, incidentally, measures the flattening of the world in notches, i.e. “The flattening process had to go another notch”; I’m not sure where the notches go in the flat plane, but there they are.) Flattener #1 is actually two flatteners, the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the spread of the Windows operating system. In a Friedman book, the reader naturally seizes up in dread the instant a suggestive word like “Windows” is introduced; you wince, knowing what’s coming, the same way you do when Leslie Nielsen orders a Black Russian. And Friedman doesn’t disappoint. His description of the early 90s:
The walls had fallen down and the Windows had opened, making the world much flatter than it had ever been–but the age of seamless global communication had not yet dawned.
How the fuck do you open a window in a fallen wall? More to the point, why would you open a window in a fallen wall? Or did the walls somehow fall in such a way that they left the windows floating in place to be opened?
Four hundred and 73 pages of this, folks. Is there no God?
© 2012 New York Press All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/21856/
Many people have complained that academic writers are addicted to the passive voice, doing anything to avoid using the first person: “Data were gathered.” I wonder who did that? But in some ways a bigger problem is that we refuse to use the kind of dynamic verbs that can energize our stories and drive the argument forward. Below is a lovely piece by Constance Hale, originally published as part of the New York Times series in 2012 on writing called Draft. In it she explains the difference between static verbs and power verbs. Yes, she says, static verbs have their uses; but when we rely too heavily on them, we drain all energy, urgency, and personality from our authorial voices. We can also end up lulling our readers to sleep.
She gives us some excellent examples about how we can use the full array of verbs at our disposal to tell compelling, nuanced, and engaging stories. Enjoy.
Here’s a link to the original version.
New York Times
APRIL 16, 2012, 9:00 PM
Draft is a series about the art and craft of writing.
This is the third in a series of writing lessons by the author.
A sentence can offer a moment of quiet, it can crackle with energy or it can just lie there, listless and uninteresting.
What makes the difference? The verb.
Verbs kick-start sentences: Without them, words would simply cluster together in suspended animation. We often call them action words, but verbs also can carry sentiments (love, fear, lust, disgust), hint at cognition (realize, know, recognize), bend ideas together (falsify, prove, hypothesize), assert possession (own, have) and conjure existence itself (is, are).
Fundamentally, verbs fall into two classes: static (to be, to seem, to become) and dynamic (to whistle, to waffle, to wonder). (These two classes are sometimes called “passive” and “active,” and the former are also known as “linking” or “copulative” verbs.) Static verbs stand back, politely allowing nouns and adjectives to take center stage. Dynamic verbs thunder in from the wings, announcing an event, producing a spark, adding drama to an assembled group.
Static verbs themselves fall into several subgroups, starting with what I call existential verbs: all the forms of to be, whether the present (am, are, is), the past (was, were) or the other more vexing tenses (is being, had been, might have been). In Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” the Prince of Denmark asks, “To be, or not to be?” when pondering life-and-death questions. An aging King Lear uses both is and am when he wonders about his very identity:
“Who is it that can tell me who I am?”
Jumping ahead a few hundred years, Henry Miller echoes Lear when, in his autobiographical novel “Tropic of Cancer,” he wanders in Dijon, France, reflecting upon his fate:
“Yet I am up and about, a walking ghost, a white man terrorized by the cold sanity of this slaughter-house geometry. Who am I? What am I doing here?”
Drawing inspiration from Miller, we might think of these verbs as ghostly verbs, almost invisible. They exist to call attention not to themselves, but to other words in the sentence.
Another subgroup is what I call wimp verbs (appear, seem, become). Most often, they allow a writer to hedge (on an observation, description or opinion) rather than commit to an idea: Lear appears confused. Miller seems lost.
Finally, there are the sensing verbs (feel, look, taste, smell and sound), which have dual identities: They are dynamic in some sentences and static in others. If Miller said I feel the wind through my coat, that’s dynamic. But if he said I feel blue, that’s static.
Static verbs establish a relationship of equals between the subject of a sentence and its complement. Think of those verbs as quiet equals signs, holding the subject and the predicate in delicate equilibrium. For example, I, in the subject, equals feel blue in the predicate.
Dynamic verbs are the classic action words. They turn the subject of a sentence into a doer in some sort of drama. But there are dynamic verbs — and then there are dynamos. Verbs like has, does, goes, gets and puts are all dynamic, but they don’t let us envision the action. The dynamos, by contrast, give us an instant picture of a specific movement. Why have a character go when he could gambol, shamble, lumber, lurch, sway, swagger or sashay?
Picking pointed verbs also allows us to forgo adverbs. Many of these modifiers merely prop up a limp verb anyway. Strike speaks softly and insert whispers. Erase eats hungrily in favor of devours. And whatever you do, avoid adverbs that mindlessly repeat the sense of the verb, as in circle around, merge together or mentally recall.
This sentence from “Tinkers,” by Paul Harding, shows how taking time to find the right verb pays off:
“The forest had nearly wicked from me that tiny germ of heat allotted to each person….”
Wick is an evocative word that nicely gets across the essence of a more commonplace verb like sucked or drained.
Sportswriters and announcers must be masters of dynamic verbs, because they endlessly describe the same thing while trying to keep their readers and listeners riveted. We’re not just talking about a player who singles, doubles or homers. We’re talking about, as announcers described during the 2010 World Series, a batter who “spoils the pitch” (hits a foul ball), a first baseman who “digs it out of the dirt” (catches a bad throw) and a pitcher who “scatters three singles through six innings” (keeps the hits to a minimum).
Imagine the challenge of writers who cover races. How can you write about, say, all those horses hustling around a track in a way that makes a single one of them come alive? Here’s how Laura Hillenbrand, in “Seabiscuit,” described that horse’s winning sprint:
“Carrying 130 pounds, 22 more than Wedding Call and 16 more than Whichcee, Seabiscuit delivered a tremendous surge. He slashed into the hole, disappeared between his two larger opponents, then burst into the lead… Seabiscuit shook free and hurtled into the homestretch alone as the field fell away behind him.”
Even scenes that at first blush seem quiet can bristle with life. The best descriptive writers find a way to balance nouns and verbs, inertia and action, tranquillity and turbulence. Take Jo Ann Beard, who opens the short story “Cousins” with static verbs as quiet as a lake at dawn:
“Here is a scene. Two sisters are fishing together in a flat-bottomed boat on an olive green lake….”
When the world of the lake starts to awaken, the verbs signal not just the stirring of life but crisp tension:
“A duck stands up, shakes out its feathers and peers above the still grass at the edge of the water. The skin of the lake twitches suddenly and a fish springs loose into the air, drops back down with a flat splash. Ripples move across the surface like radio waves. The sun hoists itself up and gets busy, laying a sparkling rug across the water, burning the beads of dew off the reeds, baking the tops of our mothers’ heads.”
Want to practice finding dynamic verbs? Go to a horse race, a baseball game or even walk-a-thon. Find someone to watch intently. Describe what you see. Or, if you’re in a quiet mood, sit on a park bench, in a pew or in a boat on a lake, and then open your senses. Write what you see, hear and feel. Consider whether to let your verbs jump into the scene or stand by patiently.
Verbs can make or break your writing, so consider them carefully in every sentence you write. Do you want to sit your subject down and hold a mirror to it? Go ahead, use is. Do you want to plunge your subject into a little drama? Go dynamic. Whichever you select, give your readers language that makes them eager for the next sentence.
Constance Hale, a journalist based in San Francisco, is the author of “Sin and Syntax” and the forthcoming “Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch.” She covers writing and the writing life at sinandsyntax.com.
This post is a paper I wrote last summer and presented at the University of Oslo in August. It’s a patchwork quilt of three previously published pieces around a topic I’ve been focused on a lot lately: the role of US higher education — for better and for worse — in creating the new American aristocracy of merit.
In it I explore the way that systems of formal schooling both opened up opportunity for people to get ahead by individual merit and created the most effective structure ever devised for reproducing social inequality. By defining merit as the accumulation of academic credentials and by constructing a radically stratified and extraordinarily opaque hierarchy of educational institutions for granting these credentials, the system grants an enormous advantage to the children of those who have already negotiated the system most effectively.
The previous generation of academic winners learned its secrets and decoded its inner logic. They found out that it’s the merit badges that matter, not the amount of useful learning you acquire along the way. So they coach their children in the art of gaming the system. The result is that these children not only gain a huge advantage at winning the rewards of the meritocracy but also acquire a degree of legitimacy for these rewards that no previous system of inherited privilege ever attained. They triumphed in a meritocratic competition, so they fully earned the power, money, and position that they derived from it. Gotta love a system that can pull that off.
Here’s a PDF of the paper.
U.S. Higher Education and Inequality:
How the Solution Became the Problem
David F. Labaree
Lee L. Jacks Professor of Education, Emeritus
Lecture delivered at University of Oslo
August 14, 2019
One of the glories of the emergence of modernity is that it offered the possibility and even the ideal that social position could be earned rather than inherited. Instead of being destined to become a king or a peasant by dictate of paternity, for the first time in history individuals had the opportunity to attain their roles in society on the basis of merit. And in this new world, public education became both the avenue for opportunity and the arbiter of merit. But one of the anomalies of modernity is that school-based meritocracy, while increasing the fluidity of status attainment, has had little effect on the degree of inequality in modern societies.
In this paper, I explore how the structure of schooling helped bring about this outcome in the United States, with special focus on the evolution of higher education in the twentieth century. The core issue driving the evolution of this structure is that the possibility for social mobility works at both the top and the bottom of the social hierarchy, with one group seeing the chance of rising up and the other facing the threat of falling down. As a result, the former sees school as the way for their children to gain access to higher position while the latter sees it as the way for their children to preserve the social position they were born with. Under pressure from both sides, the structure of schooling needs to find a way to accommodate these two contradictory aims. In practice the system can accomplish this by allowing children from families at the bottom and the top to both increase their educational attainment beyond the level of their parents. In theory this means that both groups can gain academic credentials that allow them to qualify for higher level occupational roles than the previous generation. They can therefore both move up in parallel, gaining upward mobility without reducing the social distance between them. Thus you end up with more opportunity without more equality.
Theoretically, it would be possible for the system to reduce or eliminate the degree to which elites manage to preserve their advantage through education simply by imposing a ceiling on the educational attainment allowed for their children. That way, when the bottom group rises they get closer to the top group. As a matter of practice, that option is not available in the U.S. As the most liberal of liberal democracies, the U.S. sees any such limits on the choices of the upper group as a gross violation of individual liberty. The result is a peculiar dynamic that has governed the evolution of the structure of American education over the years. The pattern is this. The out-group exerts political pressure in order to gain greater educational credentials for their children while the in-group responds by increasing the credentials of their own children. The result is that both groups move up in educational qualifications at the same time. Schooling goes up but social gaps remain the same. It’s an elevator effect. Every time the floor rises, so does the ceiling.
In the last 200 years of the history of schooling in the United States, the dynamic has played out like this. At the starting point, one group has access to a level of education that is denied to another group. The outsiders exert pressure to gain access to this level, which democratic leaders eventually feel compelled to grant. But the insiders feel threatened by the loss of social advantage that greater access would bring, so they press to preserve that advantage. How does the system accomplish this? Through two simple mechanisms. First, at the level where access is expanding, it stratifies schooling into curricular tracks or streams. This means that the newcomers fill the lower tracks while the old-timers occupy the upper tracks. Second, for the previously advantaged group it expands access to schooling at the next higher level. So the system expands access to one level of schooling while simultaneously stratifying that level and opening up the next level.
This process has gone through three cycles in the history of U.S. schooling. When the common school movement created a system of universal elementary schooling in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, it also created a selective public high school at the top of the system. The purpose of the latter was to draw upper-class children from private schools into the public system by offering access to the high school only to graduates of the public grammar schools. Without the elite high school as inducement, public schooling would have been left the domain for paupers. Then at the end of the nineteenth century, elementary grades filled up and demand increased for wider access to high school, so the system opened the doors to this institution. But at the same it introduced curriculum tracks and set off a surge of college enrollments by the former high school students. And when high schools themselves filled by the middle of the twentieth century, the system opened access to higher education by creating a range of new nonselective colleges and universities to absorb the influx. This preserved the exclusivity of the older institutions, whose graduates in large numbers then started pursuing postgraduate degrees.
Result: A Very Stratified System of Higher Education
By the middle of the twentieth century, higher education was the zone of advantage for any American trying to get ahead or stay ahead. And as a result of the process by which the tertiary system managed to incorporate both functions, it became extraordinarily stratified. This was a system that emerged without a plan, based not on government fiat but the competing interests of educational consumers seeking to use it to their own advantage. A market-oriented system of higher education such as this one has a special dynamic that leads to a high degree of stratification. Each educational enterprise competes with the others to establish a position in the market that will allow it to draw students, generate a comfortable surplus, and maintain this situation over time. The problem is that, given the lack of effective state limits on the establishment and expansion of colleges, these schools find themselves in a buyer’s market. Individual buyers may want one kind of program over another, which gives colleges an incentive to differentiate the market horizontally to accommodate these various demands. At the same time, however, buyers want a college diploma that will help them get ahead socially. This means that consumers don’t just want a college education that is different; they want one that is better – better at providing access to good jobs. In response to this consumer demand, the U.S. has developed a multi-tiered hierarchy of higher education, ranging from open-access institutions at the bottom to highly exclusive institutions at the top, with each of the upper tier institutions offering graduates a degree that provides invidious distinction over graduates from schools in the lower tiers.
This stratified structure of higher education arose in the nineteenth century in a dynamic market system, where the institutional actors had to operate according to four basic rules. Rule One: Age trumps youth. It’s no accident that the oldest American colleges are overrepresented in the top tier. Of the top 20 U.S. universities, 19 were founded before 1900 and 7 before 1776, even though more than half of all American universities were founded in the twentieth century. Before competitors had entered the field, the oldest schools had already established a pattern of training the country’s leaders, locked up access to the wealthiest families, accumulated substantial endowments, and hired the most capable faculty.
Rule Two: The strongest rewards go to those at the top of the system. This means that every college below the top has a strong incentive to move up the ladder, and that top colleges have a strong incentive to preserve their advantage. Even though it is very difficult for lower-level schools to move up, this doesn’t keep them from trying. Despite long odds, the possible payoff is big enough that everyone stays focused on the tier above. A few major success stories allow institutions to keep their hopes alive. University presidents lie awake at night dreaming of replicating the route to the top followed by social climbers like Berkeley, Hopkins, Chicago, and Stanford.
Rule Three: It pays to imitate your betters. As the research university emerged as the model for the top tier in American higher education in the twentieth century, it became the ideal toward which all other schools sought to move. To get ahead you needed to offer a full array of undergraduate, graduate, and professional programs, selective admissions and professors who publish, a football stadium and Gothic architecture. (David Riesman called this structure of imitation “the academic procession.”) Of course, given the advantages enjoyed by the top tier, imitation has rarely produced the desired results. But it’s the only game in town. Even if you don’t move up in the rankings, you at least help reassure your school’s various constituencies that they are associated with something that looks like and feels like a real university.
Rule Four: It’s best to expand the system by creating new colleges rather than increasing enrollments at existing colleges. Periodically new waves of educational consumers push for access to higher education. Initially, existing schools expanded to meet the demand, which meant that as late as 1900 Harvard was the largest U.S. university, public or private. But beyond this point in the growth process, it was not in the interest of existing institutions to provide wider access. Concerned about protecting their institutional advantage, they had no desire to sully their hard-won distinction by admitting the unwashed. Better to have this kind of thing done by additional colleges created for that purpose. The new colleges emerged, then, as a clearly designated lower tier in the system, defined as such by both their newness and their accessibility.
Think about how these rules have shaped the historical process that produced the present stratified structure of higher education. This structure has four tiers. In line with Rule One, these tiers from top to bottom emerged in roughly chronological order. The Ivy League colleges emerged in the colonial period, followed by a series of flagship state colleges in the early and mid-nineteenth century. These institutions, along with a few social climbers that emerged later, grew to form the core of the elite research universities that make up the top tier of the system. Schools in this tier are the most influential, prestigious, well-funded, exclusive, research-productive, and graduate-oriented – in the U.S. and in the world.
The second tier emerged from the land grant colleges that began appearing in the mid to late nineteenth century. They were created to fill a need not met by existing institutions, expanding access for a broader array of students and offering programs with practical application in areas like agriculture and engineering. They were often distinguished from the flagship research university by the word “state” in their title (as with University of Michigan vs. Michigan State University) or the label “A & M” (for Agricultural and Mechanical, as with University of Texas vs. Texas A & M). But, in line with Rules Two and Three, they responded to consumer demand by quickly evolving into full service colleges and universities; and in the twentieth century they adopted the form and function of the research university, albeit in a more modest manner.
The third tier arose from the normal schools, established in the late nineteenth century to prepare teachers. Like the land grant schools that preceded them, these narrowly vocational institutions evolved quickly under pressure from consumers, who wanted them to model themselves after the schools in the top tiers by offering a more valuable set of credentials that would provide access to a wider array of social opportunities. Under these market pressures, normal schools evolved into teachers colleges, general-purpose state colleges, and finally, by the 1960s, comprehensive regional state universities.
The fourth tier emerged in part from the junior colleges that first arose in the early twentieth century and eventually evolved into an extensive system of community colleges. Like the land grant college and normal school, these institutions offered access to a new set of students at a lower level of the system. Unlike their predecessors, for the most part they have not been allowed by state governments to imitate the university model, remaining primarily as two-year schools. But through the transfer option, many students use them as a more accessible route into institutions in the upper tiers.
What This Means for Educational Consumers
This highly stratified system is very difficult for consumers to navigate. Instead of allocating access to the top level of the system using the mechanism employed by most of the rest of the world – a state-administered university matriculation exam – the highly decentralized American system allocates access by means of informal mechanisms that in comparison seem anarchic. In the absence of one access route, there are many; and in the absence of clear rules for prospective students, there are multiple and conflicting rules of thumb. Also, the rules of thumb vary radically according to which tier of the system you are seeking to enter.
First, let’s look at the admissions process for families (primarily the upper-middle class) who are trying to get their children entrée to the elite category of highly selective liberal arts colleges and research universities. They have to take into account the wide array of factors that enter into the complex and opaque process that American colleges use to select students at this level: quality of high school; quality of a student’s program of study; high school grades; test scores in the SAT or ACT college aptitude tests; interests and passions expressed in an application essay; parents’ alumni status; whether the student needs financial aid; athletic skills; service activities; diversity factors such as race, ethnicity, class, national origin, sex, and sexual orientation; and extracurricular contributions a student might make to the college community. There is no centralized review process; instead every college carries out its own admissions review and employs its own criteria.
This open and indeterminate process provides a huge advantage for upper-middle-class families. If you are a parent who is a college graduate and who works at a professional or managerial job, where the payoff of going to a good college is readily apparent, you have the cultural and social capital to negotiate this system effectively and read its coded messages. For you, going to college is not the issue; it’s a matter of which college your children can get into that would provide them with the greatest competitive advantage in the workplace. You want for them the college that might turn them down rather than the one that would welcome them with open arms. So you enroll your children in test prep; hire a college advisor; plan out a strategic plan for high school course-taking and extracurriculars; craft a service resume that makes them look appropriately public-spirited; take them on the obligatory college tour; and come up with just the right mix of applications to the stretch schools, the safety schools, and those in between. And all this pays off handsomely: 77 percent of children from families in the top quintile by income gain a bachelor’s degree.
If you are a parent farther down the class scale, who didn’t attend college and whose own work environment is not well stocked with college graduates, you have a lot more trouble negotiating the system. The odds are not good: for students from the fourth income quintile, only 17 percent earn a BA, and for the lowest quintile the rate is only 9 percent. Under these circumstances, having your child go to a college, any college, is a big deal; and one college is hard to distinguish from another. But you are faced by a system that offers an extraordinary diversity of choices for prospective students: public, not-for-profit, or for-profit; secular or religious; two-year or four-year; college or university; teaching or research oriented; massive or tiny student body; vocational or liberal; division 1, 2, or 3 intercollegiate athletics, or no sports at all; party school or nerd haven; high rank or low rank; full-time or part-time enrollment; urban or pastoral; gritty or serene; residential, commuter, or “suitcase college” (where students go home on weekends). In this complex setting both consumers and providers somehow have to make choices that are in their own best interest. Families from the upper-middle class are experts at negotiating this system, trimming the complexity down to a few essentials: a four-year institution that is highly selective and preferably private (not-for-profit). Everything else is optional.
If you’re a working-class family, however – lacking deep knowledge of the system and without access to the wide array of support systems that money can buy – you are more likely to take the system at face value. Having your children go to a community college is the most obvious and attractive option. It’s close to home, inexpensive, and easy to get into. It’s where your children’s friends will be going, it allows them to work and go to school part time, and it doesn’t seem as forbiddingly alien as the state university (much less the Ivies). You don’t need anything to gain admission except a high school diploma or GED. No tests, counselors, tours, or resume-burnishing is required. Of you could try the next step up, the local comprehensive state university. To apply for admission, all you need is a high school transcript. You might get turned down, but the odds are in your favor. The cost is higher but can usually be paid with federal grants and loans. An alternative is a for-profit institution, which is extremely accessible, flexible, and often online. It’s not cheap, but federal grants and loans can pay the cost. What you don’t have any way of knowing is that the most accessible colleges at the bottom of the system are also the ones where students are least likely to graduate. (Only 29 percent of students entering two-year colleges earn an associate degree in three years; only 39 percent earn a degree from a two-year or four-year institution in six years.) You also may not be aware that the economic payoff for these colleges is lower; or that the colleges higher up the system may not only provide stronger support toward graduation and but might even be less expensive because of greater scholarship funding.
In this way, the complexity and opacity of this market-based and informally-structured system helps reinforce the social advantages of those at the top of the social ladder and limit the opportunities for those at the bottom. It’s a system that rewards the insider knowledge of old hands and punishes newcomers. To work it effectively, you need reject the fiction that a college is a college is a college and learn how seek advantage in the system’s upper tiers.
On the other hand, the system’s fluidity is real. The absence of state-sanctioned and formally structured tracks means that the barriers between the system’s tiers are permeable. Your children’s future is not predetermined by their high school curriculum or their score on the matriculation exam. They can apply to any college they want and see what happens. Of course, if their grades and scores are not great, their chances of admission to upper level institutions are poor. But their chances of getting into a teaching-oriented state university are pretty good, and their chances of getting into a community college are virtually assured. And if they take the latter option, as is most often the case for children from socially disadvantaged families, there is a real (if modest) possibility that they might be able to prove their academic chops, earn an AA degree, and transfer to a university, even a research university. The probabilities of moving up in the system are low: most community college students never earn an AA degree; and transfers have a harder time succeeding in the university than students who enroll there as freshmen. But the possibilities are nonetheless genuine.
American higher education offers something for everyone. It helps those at the bottom to get ahead and those at the top to stay ahead. It provides socially useful educational services for every ability level and every consumer preference. This gives it an astonishingly broad base of political support across the entire population, since everyone needs it and everyone can potentially benefit from it. And this kind of legitimacy is not possible if the opportunity the system offers to the lower classes is a simple fraud. First generation college students, even if they struggled in high school, can attend community college, transfer to San Jose State, and end up working at Apple. It’s not very likely, but it assuredly is possible. True, the more advantages you bring to the system – cultural capital, connections, family wealth – the higher the probability that you will succeed in it. But even if you are lacking in these attributes, there is still an outside chance that you just might make it through the system and emerge with a good middle class job.
This helps explain how the system gets away with preserving social advantage for those at the top without stirring a revolt from those at the bottom. Students from working-class and lower-class families are much less likely to be admitted to the upper reaches of the higher education system that provides the greatest social rewards; but the opportunity to attend some form of college is high, and attending a college at the lower levels of the system may provide access to a good job. The combination of high access to the lower levels of the system and high attrition on the way to attaining a bachelor’s degree creates a situation where the system gets credit for openness and the student bears the burden for failing to capitalize on it. The system gave you a chance but you just couldn’t make the grade. The ready-made explanations for personal failure accumulate quickly as students try to move through the system. You didn’t study hard enough, you didn’t get good grades in high school, you didn’t get good test scores, so you couldn’t get into a selective college. Instead you went to a community college, where you got distracted from your studies by work, family, and friends, and you didn’t have the necessary academic ability; so you failed to complete your AA degree. Or maybe you did complete the degree and transferred to a university, but you had trouble competing with students who were more able and better prepared than you. Along with the majority of students who don’t make it all the way to a BA, you bear the burden for your failure – a conclusion that is reinforced by the occasional but highly visible successes of a few of your peers. The system is well defended against charges of unfairness.
So we can understand why people at the bottom don’t cry foul. It gave you a chance. And there is one more reason for keeping up your hope that education will pay off for you. A degree from an institution in a lower tier may pay lower benefits, but for some purposes one degree really is as good as another. Often the question in getting a job or a promotion is not whether you have a classy credential but whether you have whatever credential is listed as the minimum requirement in the job description. Bureaucracies operate on a level where form often matters more than substance. As long as you can check off the box confirming that you have a bachelor’s degree, the BA from University of Phoenix and the BA from University of Pennsylvania can serve the same function, by allowing you to be considered for the job. And if, say, you’re a public school teacher, an MA from Capella University, under the district contract, is as effective as one from Stanford University, because either will qualify you for a $5,000 bump in pay.
At the same time, however, we can see why the system generates so much anxiety among students who are trying to use the system to move up the social ladder for the good life. It’s really the only game in town for getting a good job in twenty-first century America. Without higher education, you are closed off from the white collar jobs that provide the most security and pay. Yes, you could try to start a business, or you could try to work your way up the ladder in an organization without a college degree; but the first approach is highly risky and the second is highly unlikely, since most jobs come with minimum education requirements regardless of experience. So you have to put all of your hopes in the higher-ed basket while knowing – because of your own difficult experiences in high school and because of what you see happening with family and friends – that your chances for success are not good. You either you choose to pursue higher ed against the odds or you simply give up. It’s a situation fraught with anxiety.
What is less obvious, however, is why the American system of higher education – which is so clearly skewed in favor of people at the top of the social order – fosters so much anxiety in them. Upper-middle-class families in the U.S. are obsessed with education and especially with getting their children into the right college. Why? They live in the communities that have the best public schools; their children have cultural and social skills that schools value and reward; and they can afford the direct cost and opportunity cost of sending their high school grads to a residential college, even one of the pricey privates. So why are there only a few colleges that seem to matter to this group? Why does it matter so much to have your child not only get into the University of California but into Berkeley or UCLA? What’s wrong with having them attend Santa Cruz or even one of the Cal State campuses? And why the overwhelming passion for pursuing admission to Harvard or Yale?
The urgency behind all such frantic concern about admission to the most elite level of the system is this: As parents of privilege, you can pass on your wealth to your children, but you can’t give them a profession. Education is built into the core of modern societies, where occupations are no longer inherited but more or less earned. If you’re a successful doctor or lawyer, you can provide a lot of advantages for your children; but in order for them to gain a position such as yours, they must succeed in school, get into a good college, and then into a good graduate school. Unless they own the company, even business executives can’t pass on position to their children, and even then it’s increasingly rare that they would actually do so. (Like most shareholders, they would profit more by having the company led by a competent executive than by the boss’s son.) Under these circumstances of modern life, providing social advantage to your children means providing them with educational advantage. Parents who have been through the process of climbing the educational hierarchy in order to gain prominent position in the occupational hierarchy know full well what it takes to make the grade.
They also know something else: When you’re at the top of the social system, there is little opportunity to rise higher but plenty of opportunity to fall farther down. Consider data on intergenerational mobility in the U.S. For children of parents in the top quintile by household income, 60 percent end up at least one quintile lower than their parents and 37 fall at least two quintiles. That’s a substantial decline in social position. So there’s good reason for these parents to fear downward mobility for their children and to use all their powers to marshal educational resources to head it off. The problem is this: Even though your own children have a wealth of advantages in negotiating the educational system, there are still enough bright and ambitious students from the lower classes who manage to make it through the educational gauntlet to pose them a serious threat. So you need to make sure that your children attend the best schools, get into the high reading group and the program for the gifted, take plenty of advanced placement classes, and then get into a highly selective college and graduate school. Leave nothing to chance, since some of your heirs are likely to be less talented and ambitious than those children who prove themselves against all odds by climbing the educational ladder. When the higher education system opened up access after World War II, it made competition for the top tier of the system sharply higher, and the degree of competitiveness continued to increase as the proportion of students going to college grew to a sizeable majority. As Jerome Karabel has noted in his study of elite college admissions, the American system of higher education does not equalize opportunity but it does equalize anxiety. It makes families at all levels of American society nervous about their ability to negotiate the system effectively, because it provides the only highway to the good life.
The American Meritocracy
The American system of education is formally meritocratic, but one of its social effects is to naturalize privilege. This starts when a student’s academic merit is so central and so pervasive in schooling that it embeds itself within the individual person. You start saying things like: I’m smart. I’m dumb. I’m a good student. I’m a bad student. I’m good at reading but bad at math. I’m lousy at sports. The construction of merit is coextensive with the entire experience of growing up, and therefore it comes to constitute the emergent you. It no longer seems to be something imposed by a teacher or a school but instead comes to be an essential part of your identity. It’s now less what you do and increasingly who you are. In this way, the systemic construction of merit begins to disappear and what’s left is a permanent trait of the individual. You are your grade and your grade is your destiny.
The problem, however – as an enormous amount of research shows – is that the formal measures of merit that schools use are subject to powerful influence from a student’s social origins. No matter how you measure merit, it affects your score. It shapes your educational attainment. It also shows up in measures that rank educational institutions by quality and selectivity. Across the board, your parents’ social class has an enormous impact on the level of merit you are likely to acquire in school. Students with higher social position end up accumulating a disproportionately large number of academic merit badges.
The correlations between socioeconomic status and school measures of merit are strong and consistent, and the causation is easy to determine. Being born well has an enormously positive impact on the education merit you acquire across your life. Let us count the ways. Economic capital is one obvious factor. Wealthy communities can support better schools. Social capital is another factor. Families from the upper middle classes have a much broader network of relationships with the larger society than those form the working class, which provides a big advantage for their schooling prospects. For them, the educational system is not foreign territory but feels like home.
Cultural capital is a third factor, and the most important of all. School is a place that teaches students the cognitive skills, cultural norms, and forms of knowledge that are required for competent performance in positions of power. Schools demonstrate a strong disposition toward these capacities over others: mental over manual skills, theoretical over practical knowledge, decontextualized over contextualized perspectives, mind over body, Gesellschaft over Gemeinschaft. Parents in the upper middle class are already highly skilled in these cultural capacities, which they deploy in their professional and managerial work on a daily basis. Their children have grown up in the world of cultural capital. It’s a language they learn to speak at home. For working-class children, school is an introduction to a foreign culture and a new language, which unaccountably other students seem to already know. They’re playing catchup from day one. Also, it turns out that schools are better at rewarding cultural capital than they are at teaching it. So kids from the upper middle class can glide through school with little effort while others continually struggle to keep up. The longer they remain in school, the larger the achievement gap between the two groups.
In the wonderful world of academic merit, therefore, the fix is in. Upper income students have a built-in advantage in acquiring the grades, credits, and degrees that constitute the primary prizes of the school meritocracy. But – and this is the true magic of the educational process – the merits that these students accumulate at school come in a purified academic form that is independent of their social origins. They may have entered schooling as people of privilege, but they leave it as people of merit. They’re good students. They’re smart. They’re well educated. As a result, they’re totally deserving of special access to the best jobs. They arrived with inherited privilege but they leave with earned privilege. So now they fully deserve what they get with their new educational credentials.
In this way, the merit structure of schooling performs a kind of alchemy. It turns class position into academic merit. It turns ascribed status into achieved status. You may have gotten into Harvard by growing up in a rich neighborhood with great schools and by being a legacy. But when you graduate, you bear the label of a person of merit, whose future accomplishments arise alone from your superior abilities. You’ve been given a second nature.
Consequences of Naturalized Privilege: The New Aristocracy
The process by which schools naturalize academic merit brings major consequences to the larger society. The most important of these is that it legitimizes social inequality. People who were born on third base get credit for hitting a triple, and people who have to start in the batter’s box face the real possibility of striking out. According to the educational system, divergent social outcomes are the result of differences in individual merit, so, one way or the other, people get what they deserve. The fact that a fraction of students from the lower classes manage against the odds to prove themselves in school and move up the social scale only adds further credibility to the existence of a real meritocracy.
In the United States in the last 40 years, we have come to see the broader implications of this system of status attainment through institutional merit. It has created a new kind of aristocracy. This is not Jefferson’s natural aristocracy, grounded in public accomplishments, but a caste of meritocratic privilege, grounded in the formalized and naturalized merit signaled by educational credentials. As with aristocracies of old, the new meritocracy is a system of rule by your betters – no longer defined as those who are better born or more accomplished but now as those who are better educated. Michael Young saw this coming back in 1958, as he predicted in his fable, The Rise of the Meritocracy. But now we can see that it has truly taken hold.
The core expertise of this new aristocracy is skill in working the system. You have to know how to play the game of educational merit-getting and pass this on to your children. The secret is in knowing that the achievements that get awarded merit points through the process of schooling are not substantive but formal. Schooling is not about learning the subject matter; it’s about getting good grades, accumulating course credits, and collecting the diploma on the way out the door. Degrees pay off, not what you learned in school or even the number of years of schooling you have acquired. What you need to know is what’s going to be on the test and nothing else. So you need to study strategically and spend of lot of effort working the refs. Give teacher what she wants and be sure to get on her good side. Give the college admissions officers the things they are looking for in your application. Pump up your test scores with coaching and learning how to game the questions.
Members of the new aristocracy are particularly aggressive about carrying out a strategy known as opportunity hoarding. There is no academic advantage too trivial to pursue, and the number of advantages you accumulate can never be enough. In order to get your children into the right selective college you need send them to the right school, get them into the gifted program in elementary school and the right track in high school, hire a tutor, carry out test prep, do the college tour, pursue prizes, develop a well-rounded resume for the student (sport, student leadership, musical instrument, service), pull strings as a legacy and a donor, and on and on and on.
As we saw earlier, such behavior by upper-middle-class parents is not a crazy as it seems. The problem with being at the top is that there’s nowhere to go but down. The system is just meritocratic enough to keep the most privileged families on edge, worried about having their child bested by a smart poor kid. Again, as Karabel put it, the only thing U.S. education equalizes is anxiety.
As with earlier aristocracies, the new aristocrats of merit cluster together in the same communities, where the schools are like no other. Their children attend the same elite colleges, where they meet their future mates and then transmit their combined cultural, social, and economic capital in concentrated form to their children, a process sociologists call assortative mating. And one consequence of this increase concentration of educational resources is that the achievement gap between low and high income students has been rising; Sean Reardon’s study shows the gap growing 40 percent in the last quarter of the twentieth century. This is how educational and social inequality grows larger over time.
By assuming the form of meritocracy, schools have come to play a central role in defining the character of modern society. In the process they have served to increase social opportunity while also increasing social inequality. At the same time, they have established a solid educational basis for the legitimacy of this new inequality, and they have fostered the development of a new aristocracy of educational merit whose economic power, social privilege, and cultural cohesion would be the envy of the high nobility in early modern England or France. Now, as then, the aristocracy assumes its outsized social role as a matter of natural right.
Community College Research Center. (2015). Community College FAQs. Teachers College, Columbia University. http://ccrc.tc.columbia.edu/Community-College-FAQs.html (accessed 8-3-15).
Geiger, Roger L. (2004). To Advance Knowledge: The Growth of American research Universities, 1900-1940. New Brunswick: Transaction.
Karabel, Jerome. (2005). The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. New York: Mariner Books.
National Center for Education Statistics. (2014). Digest of Education Statistics, 2013. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office.
Pell Institute and PennAHEAD. (2015). Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States (2015 revised edition). Philadelphia: The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education and the University of Pennsylvania Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy (PennAHEAD). http://www.pellinstitute.org/publications-Indicators_of_Higher_Education_Equity_in_the_United_States_45_Year_Report.shtml (accessed 8-10-15).
Pew Charitable Trusts Economic Mobility Project. (2012). Pursuing the American Dream: Economic Mobility Across Generations. Washington, DC: Pew Charitable Trusts. http://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/reports/0001/01/01/pursuing-the-american-dream (accessed 8-10-15).
Riesman, David. (1958). The Academic Procession. In Constraint and variety in American education. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
U.S. News and World Report. (2015). National Universities Rankings. http://colleges.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-colleges/rankings/national-universities (accessed 4-28-15).
Young, Michael D. (1958). The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870-2023. New York: Random House.
 U.S. News (2015).
 Riesman, (1958).
 Geiger (2004), 270.
 Pell (2015), p. 31.
 Pell (2015), p. 31.
 NCES (2014), table 326.20.
 CCRC (2015).
 Pew (2012), figure 3.
 Karabel (2005), p. 547.
 Young (1958).
This post contains all of the material for the class on the History of Higher Education in the US that I taught for at the Stanford Graduate School of Education for the last 15 years. In retirement I wanted to make the course available on the internet to anyone who is interested. If you are a college teacher, feel free to use any of it in whole or part. If you are a student or a group of students, you can work your way through the class on your own at your own pace. Any benefits that accrue are purely intrinsic, since no one will get college credits. But that also means you’re free to pursue the parts of the class that you want and you don’t have any requirements or papers. How great is that.
I’m posting the full syllabus below. But it would be more useful to get it as a Word document through this link. Feel free to share it with anyone you like.
All of the course materials except three required books are embedded in the syllabus through hyperlinks to a Google drive. For each week, the syllabus includes a link to tips for approaching the readings, links to the PDFs of the readings, and a link to the slides for that week’s class. Slides also include links to additional sources. So the syllabus is all that is needed to gain access to the full class.
I hope you find this useful.
History of Higher Education in the U.S.
A 10-Week Class
This course provides an introductory overview of the history of higher education in the United States. We will start with Perkin’s account of the world history of the university, and two chapters from my book about the role of the market in shaping the history of American higher education and the pressure from consumers to have college provide both social access and social advantage. In week two, we examine an overview of the history of American college and university in the 18th and 19th centuries from John Thelin, and my chapter on the emerging nature of the college system. In week three, we focus on the rise of the university in the latter part of the 19th century using two more chapters from Thelin, and my own chapter on the subject. In week four, we read a series of papers around the issue of access to higher education, showing how colleges for many years sought to repel or redirect the college aspirations of women, blacks, and Jews. In week five, we examine the history of professional education, with special attention to schools of business, education, and medicine. In week six, we read several chapters from Donald Levine’s book about the rise of mass higher education after World War I, my piece about the rise of community colleges, and more from Thelin. In week seven, we look at the surge of higher ed enrollments after World War II, drawing on pieces by Rebecca Lowen, Roger Geiger, Thelin, and Labaree. In week eight, we look at the broadly accessible full-service regional state university, drawing on Alden Dunham, Thelin, Lohmann, and my chapter on the relationship between the public and private sector. In week nine, we read a selection of chapters from Jerome Karabel’s book about the struggle by elite universities to stay on top of a dynamic and expanding system of higher education. And in week 10, we step back and try to get a fix on the evolved nature of the American system of higher education, drawing on work by Mitchell Stevens and the concluding chapters of my book.
Like every course, this one is not a neutral survey of all possible perspectives on the domain identified by the course title; like every course, this one has a point of view. This point of view comes through in my book manuscript that we’ll be reading in the course. Let me give you an idea of the kind of approach I will be taking.
The American system of higher education is an anomaly. In the twentieth century it surged past its European forebears to become the dominant system in the world – with more money, talent, scholarly esteem, and institutional influence than any of the systems that served as its models. By all rights, this never should have happened. Its origins were remarkably humble: a loose assortment of parochial nineteenth-century liberal-arts colleges, which emerged in the pursuit of sectarian expansion and civic boosterism more than scholarly distinction. These colleges had no academic credibility, no reliable source of students, and no steady funding. Yet these weaknesses of the American system in the nineteenth century turned out to be strengths in the twentieth. In the absence of strong funding and central control, individual colleges had to learn how to survive and thrive in a highly competitive market, in which they needed to rely on student tuition and alumni donations and had to develop a mode of governance that would position them to pursue any opportunity and cultivate any source of patronage. As a result, American colleges developed into an emergent system of higher education that was lean, adaptable, autonomous, consumer-sensitive, self-supporting, and radically decentralized. This put the system in a strong position to expand and prosper when, before the turn of the twentieth century, it finally got what it was most grievously lacking: a surge of academic credibility (when it assumed the mantle of scientific research) and a surge of student enrollments (when it became the pipeline to the middle class). This course is an effort to understand how a system that started out so badly turned out so well – and how its apparently unworkable structure is precisely what makes the system work.
That’s an overview of the kind of argument I will be making about the history of higher education. But you should feel free to construct your own, rejecting mine in part or in whole. The point of this class, like any class, is to encourage you to try on a variety of perspectives as part of the process of developing your own working conceptual framework for understanding the world. I hope you will enjoy the ride.
Books: We will be reading the following books:
Thelin, John R. (2011). A history of American higher education, 2nd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Labaree, David F. (2017). A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Karabel, Jerome. (2005). The chosen: The hidden history of admission and exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Supplementary Resources: There is a terrific online archive of primary and secondary readings on higher education, which is a supplement to The History of Higher Education, 3rd ed., published by the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE): http://www.pearsoncustom.com/mi/msu_ashe/.
Below are the topics we will cover, week by week, with the readings for each week.
Introduction to course
Tips for week 1 readings
Labaree, David F. (2015). A system without a plan: Elements of the American model of higher education. Chapter 1 in A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education.
Labaree, David F. (2015). Balancing access and advantage. Chapter 5 in A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education,
Perkin, Harold. (1997). History of universities. In Lester F. Goodchild and Harold S. Wechsler (Eds.), ASHE reader on the history of higher education, 2nd ed. (pp. 3-32). Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing.
Class slides for week 1
Overview of the Early History of Higher Education in the U.S.
Tips for week 2 readings
Thelin, John R. (2011). A history of American higher education, 2nd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press (introductory essay and chapters 1-3).
Labaree, David F. (2015). Unpromising roots: The ragtag college system in the nineteenth century. Chapter 2 in A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education.
Class slides for week 2
Roots of the Growth of the University in the Late 19th and Early 20th Century
Tips for week 3 readings
Thelin, John R. (2011). A history of American higher education, 2nd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press (chapters 4-5).
Labaree, David F. (2015). Adding the pinnacle and keeping the base: The graduate school crowns the system, 1880-1910. Chapter 3 in A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education,
Labaree, David F. (1995). Foreword (to book by Brown, David K. (1995). Degrees of control: A sociology of educational expansion and occupational credentialism. New York: Teachers College Press).
Class slides for week 3
Educating and Not Educating the Other: Blacks, Women, and Jews
Tips for week 4 readings
Wechsler, Harold S. (1997). An academic Gresham’s law: Group repulsion as a theme in American higher education. In Lester F. Goodchild and Harold S. Wechsler (Eds.), ASHE reader on the history of higher education, 2nd ed. (pp. 416-431). Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing.
Anderson, James D. (1997). Training the apostles of liberal culture: Black higher education, 1900-1935. In Lester F. Goodchild and Harold S. Wechsler (Eds.), ASHE reader on the history of higher education, 2nd ed. (pp. 432-458). Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing.
Gordon, Lynn D. (1997). From seminary to university: An overview of women’s higher education, 1870-1920. In Lester F. Goodchild and Harold S. Wechsler (Eds.), ASHE reader on the history of higher education, 2nd ed. (pp. 473-498). Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing.
Class slides for week 4
History of Professional Education
Tips for week 5 readings
Brubacher, John S. and Rudy, Willis. (1997). Professional education. In Lester F. Goodchild and Harold S. Wechsler (Eds.), ASHE reader on the history of higher education, 2nd ed. (pp. 379-393). Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing.
Bledstein, Burton J. (1976). The culture of professionalism. In The culture of professionalism: The middle class and the development of higher education in America (pp. 80-128). New York: W. W. Norton.
Labaree, David F. (2015). Mutual subversion: The liberal and the professional. Chapter 4 in A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education,
Class slides for week 5
Emergence of Mass Higher Education
Tips for week 6 readings
Thelin, John R. (2011). A history of American higher education, 2nd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press (chapter 6).
Labaree, David F. (1997). The rise of the community college: Markets and the limits of educational opportunity. In How to succeed in school without really learning: The credentials race in American education (chapter 8, pp. 190-222). New Haven: Yale University Press.
Class slides for week 6
The Huge Surge of Higher Education Expansion after World War II
Tips for week 7 readings
Thelin, John R. (2011). A history of American higher education, 2nd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press (chapter 7).
Geiger, Roger. (2004). University advancement from the postwar era to the 1960s. In Research and relevant knowledge: American research universities since World War II (chapter 5, pp. 117-156). Read the first half of the chapter, which focuses on the rise of Stanford.
Labaree, David F. (2015). Learning to love the bomb: America’s brief cold-war fling with the university as a public good. Chapter 7 in A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education.
Class slides for week 7
Populist, Practical, and Elite: The Diversity and Evolved Institutional Character of the Full-Service American University
Tips for week 8 readings
Thelin, John R. (2011). A history of American higher education, 2nd ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press (chapter 8).
Labaree, David F. (2015). Private advantage, public impact. Chapter 6 in A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education.
Class slides for week 8
The Struggle by Elite Universities to Stay on Top
Tips for week 9 readings
Karabel, Jerome. (2005). The chosen: The hidden history of admission and exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Read introduction and chapters 2, 4, 9, 12, 13, 17, and 18.
Class slides for week 9
Conclusions about the American System of Higher Education
Tips for week 10 readings
Stevens, Mitchell L., Armstrong, Elizabeth A., & Arum, Richard. (2008). Sieve, incubator, temple, hub: Empirical and theoretical advances in the sociology of higher education. Annual Review of Sociology, 34 (127-151).
Labaree, David F. (2015). Upstairs, downstairs: Relations between the tiers of the system. Chapter 8 in A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education,
Labaree, David F. (2015). A perfect mess. Chapter 9 in A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education.
Class slides for week 10
Guidelines for Critical Reading
Whenever you set out to do a critical reading of a particular text (a book, article, speech, proposal, conference paper), you need to use the following questions as a framework to guide you as you read:
- What’s the point? This is the analysis/interpretation issue: what is the author’s angle?
- What’s new? This is the value-added issue: What does the author contribute that we don’t already know?
- Who says? This is the validity issue: On what (data, literature) are the claims based?
- Who cares? This is the significance issue, the most important issue of all, the one that subsumes all the others: Is this work worth doing? Is the text worth reading? Does it contribute something important?
Guidelines for Analytical Writing
In writing papers for this (or any) course, keep in mind the following points. They apply in particular to the longer papers, but most of the same concerns apply to critical reaction papers as well.
- Pick an important issue: Make sure that your analysis meets the “so what” test. Why should anyone care about this topic, anyway? Pick an issue or issues that matters and that you really care about.
- Keep focused: Don’t lose track of the point you are trying to make and make sure the reader knows where you are heading and why.
- Aim for clarity: Don’t assume that the reader knows what you’re talking about; it’s your job to make your points clearly. In part this means keeping focused and avoiding distracting clutter. But in part it means that you need to make more than elliptical references to concepts and sources or to professional experience. When referring to readings (from the course or elsewhere), explain who said what and why this point is pertinent to the issue at hand. When drawing on your own experiences or observations, set the context so the reader can understand what you mean. Proceed as though you were writing for an educated person who is neither a member of this class nor a professional colleague, someone who has not read the material you are referring to.
- Provide analysis: A good paper is more than a catalogue of facts, concepts, experiences, or references; it is more than a description of the content of a set of readings; it is more than an expression of your educational values or an announcement of your prescription for what ails education. A good paper is a logical and coherent analysis of the issues raised within your chosen area of focus. This means that your paper should aim to explain rather than describe. If you give examples, be sure to tell the reader what they mean in the context of your analysis. Make sure the reader understands the connection between the various points in your paper.
- Provide depth, insight, and connections: The best papers are ones that go beyond making obvious points, superficial comparisons, and simplistic assertions. They dig below the surface of the issue at hand, demonstrating a deeper level of understanding and an ability to make interesting connections.
- Support your analysis with evidence: You need to do more than simply state your ideas, however informed and useful these may be. You also need to provide evidence that reassures the reader that you know what you are talking about, thus providing a foundation for your argument. Evidence comes in part from the academic literature, whether encountered in this course or elsewhere. Evidence can also come from your own experience. Remember that you are trying to accomplish two things with the use of evidence. First, you are saying that it is not just you making this assertion but that authoritative sources and solid evidence back you up. Second, you are supplying a degree of specificity and detail, which helps to flesh out an otherwise skeletal argument.
- Draw on course materials (this applies primarily to reaction papers, not the final paper). Your paper should give evidence that you are taking this course. You do not need to agree with any of the readings or presentations, but your paper should show you have considered the course materials thoughtfully.
- Recognize complexity and acknowledge multiple viewpoints. The issues in the history of American education are not simple, and your paper should not propose simple solutions to complex problems. It should not reduce issues to either/or, black/white, good/bad. Your paper should give evidence that you understand and appreciate more than one perspective on an issue. This does not mean you should be wishy-washy. Instead, you should aim to make a clear point by showing that you have considered alternate views.
- Challenge assumptions. The paper should show that you have learned something by doing this paper. There should be evidence that you have been open to changing your mind.
- Do not overuse quotation: In a short paper, long quotations (more than a sentence or two in length) are generally not appropriate. Even in longer papers, quotations should be used sparingly unless they constitute a primary form of data for your analysis. In general, your paper is more effective if written primarily in your own words, using ideas from the literature but framing them in your own way in order to serve your own analytical purposes. However, selective use of quotations can be very useful as a way of capturing the author’s tone or conveying a particularly aptly phrased point.
- Cite your sources: You need to identify for the reader where particular ideas or examples come from. This can be done through in-text citation: Give the author’s last name, publication year, and (in the case of quotations) page number in parentheses at the end of the sentence or paragraph where the idea is presented — e.g., (Kliebard, 1986, p. 22); provide the full citations in a list of references at the end of the paper. You can also identify sources with footnotes or endnotes: Give the full citation for the first reference to a text and a short citation for subsequent citations to the same text. (For critical reaction papers, you only need to give the short cite for items from the course reading; other sources require full citations.) Note that citing a source is not sufficient to fulfill the requirement to provide evidence for your argument. As spelled out in #6 above, you need to transmit to the reader some of the substance of what appears in the source cited, so the reader can understand the connection with the point you are making and can have some meat to chew on. The best analytical writing provides a real feel for the material and not just a list of assertions and citations. Depth, insight, and connections count for more than a superficial collection of glancing references. In other words, don’t just mention an array of sources without drawing substantive points and examples from these sources; and don’t draw on ideas from such sources without identifying the ones you used.
- Take care in the quality of your prose: A paper that is written in a clear and effective style makes a more convincing argument than one written in a murky manner, even when both writers start with the same basic understanding of the issues. However, writing that is confusing usually signals confusion in a person’s thinking. After all, one key purpose of writing is to put down your ideas in a way that permits you and others to reflect on them critically, to see if they stand up to analysis. So you should take the time to reflect on your own ideas on paper and revise them as needed. You may want to take advantage of the opportunity in this course to submit a draft of the final paper, revise it in light of comments, and then resubmit the revised version. This, after all, is the way writers normally proceed. Outside of the artificial world of the classroom, writers never turn in their first draft as their final statement on a subject.
All too often, academic writing is tone deaf to the music of language. Just as we tend to consider unprofessional any writing that is playful, engaging, funny, or moving, so too with writing that is musical. A professional monotone is the scholar’s voice of choice. This stance leads to two big problems. One is that it puts off the reader, exactly the person we should be trying to draw into our story. Why so easily abandon one of the great tools of effective rhetoric? Another is that it alienates academic writers from their own words, forcing them to adopt the generic voice of the pedant rather than the particular voice the person who is the author.
For better or for worse — usually for worse — we as scholars are contributing to the literary legacy of our culture, so why not do so in a way that sometimes sings or at least doesn’t end on a false note. Speaking of which, consider a quote from one of the masters of English prose, Abraham Lincoln, from the last paragraph of his first inaugural address. Picture him talking at the brink of the nation’s most terrible war, and then listen to his melodic phrasing:
I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
In the English language, there are two rhetorical storehouses that for centuries have grounded writers like Lincoln — Shakespeare and the King James Bible. Both are compulsively quotable, and both provide models for how to combine meaning and music in the way we write.
Take a look at this lovely piece by Ann Wroe, an appreciation of the music of the King James Bible, which makes all the the other translations sound tone deaf.
Published in the Economist
March 30, 2011
IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE SOUND
By Ann Wroe
The King James Bible is 400 years old this year, and the music of its sentences is still ringing out. But what exactly made it so good? Ann Wroe gives chapter and verse…
Like many Catholics, I came late to the King James Bible. I was schooled in the flat Knox version, and knew the beautiful, musical Latin Vulgate well before I was introduced to biblical beauty in my own tongue. I was around 20, sitting in St John’s College Chapel in Oxford in the glow of late winter candlelight, though that fond memory may be embellished a little. A reading from the King James was given at Evensong. The effect was extraordinary: as if I had suddenly found, in the house of language I had loved and explored all my life, a hidden central chamber whose pillars and vaulting, rhythm and strength had given shape to everything around them.
The King James now breathes venerability. Even online it calls up crammed, black, indented fonts, thick rag paper and rubbed leather bindings—with, inside the heavy cover, spidery lists of family ancestors begotten long ago. To read it is to enter a sort of communion with everyone who has read or listened to it before, a crowd of ghosts: Puritan women in wide white collars, stern Victorian fathers clasping their canes, soldiers muddy from killing fields, serving girls in Sunday best, and every schoolboy whose inky fingers have burrowed to 2 Kings 27, where Rabshakeh says, “Hath my master not sent me to the men which sit on the wall, that they may eat their own dung, and drink their own piss with you?”
When it appeared, moreover, it was already familiar, in the sense that it borrowed freely from William Tyndale’s great translation of a century before. Deliberately, and with commendable modesty, the members of King James’s translation committees said they did not seek “to make a new translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one, but to make a good one better”. What exactly they borrowed and where they improved is a detective job for scholars, not for this piece. So where it mentions “translators” Tyndale is included among them, the original and probably the best; for this book still breathes him, as much as them.
In both his time and theirs this was a modern translation, the living language of streets, docks, workshops, fields. Ancient Israel and Jacobean England went easily together. The original writers of the books of the Old Testament knew about pruning trees, putting on armour, drawing water, the readying of horses for battle and the laying of stones for a wall; and in the King James all these activities are still evidently familiar, the jargon easy, and the language light. “Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward”, runs the wonderful phrase in Job 5: 7, and we are at a blacksmith’s door in an English village, watching hammer strike anvil, or kicking a rolling log on our own cottage hearth. “Hard as a piece of the nether millstone” brings the creak of a 17th-century mill, as well as the sweat of more ancient hands. In both worlds, “seedtime and harvest” are real seasons. This age-old continuity comforts us, even though we no longer know or share it.
By the same token, the reader of the King James lives vicariously in a world of solid certainties. There is nothing quaint here about a candle or a flagon, or money in a tied leather purse; nothing arcane about threads woven on a handloom, mire in the streets or the snuffle of swine outside the town gates. This is life. Everything is closely observed, tactile, and has weight. When Adam and Eve sew fig-leaves together to cover their shame they make “aprons” (Genesis 3: 7), leather-thick and workmanlike, the sort a cobbler might wear. Even the colours invoked in the King James—crimson, scarlet, purple—are nouns rather than adjectives (“though your sins be as scarlet”, Isaiah 1: 18), sold by the block as solid powder or heaped glossy on a brush. And God’s intervention in this world, whether as artist, builder, woodsman or demolition man, is as physical and real as the materials he works with.
English, of course, was richer in those days, full of neesings and axletrees, habergeons and gazingstocks, if indeed a gazingstock has a plural. Modern skin has spots: the King James gives us botches, collops and blains, horridly and lumpily different. It gives us curious clutter, too, a whole storehouse of tools and knick-knacks whose use is now half-forgotten—nuff-dishes, besoms, latchets and gins, and fashions seemingly more suited to a souped-up motor than to the daughters of Jerusalem:
The chains, and the bracelets, and the mufflers,
The bonnets, and the ornaments of the legs, and the
headbands, and the tablets, and the earrings,
The rings, and nose jewels,
The changeable suits of apparel, and the mantles, and the
wimples, and the crisping pins… (Isaiah 3: 19-22)
“Crisping pins” have now been swallowed up (in the Good News version) in “fine robes, gowns, cloaks and purses”. And so we have lost that sharp, momentary image of varnished nails pushing pins into unruly frizzes of hair, and lipsticked mouths pursed in concentration, as the daughters of Zion prepare to take on the town. These women are “froward”, a word that has been lost now, but which haunts the King James like a strutting shadow with a shrill, hectoring voice. Few lines are longer-drawn out, freighted with sighs, than these from Proverbs 27:15: “A continual dropping in a very rainy day and a contentious woman are alike.”
Other characters cause trouble, too. In the King James, people are aggressively physical. They shoot out their lips, stretch forth their necks and wink with their eyes; they open their mouths wide and say “Aha, aha”, wagging their heads, in ways that would get them arrested in Wal-Mart. They do not simply refuse to listen, but pull away their shoulders and stop their ears; they do not merely trip, but dash their feet against stones. Sex is peremptory: men “know” women, lie with them, “go in unto” them, as brisk as the women are available. “Begat” is perhaps the word the King James is best known for, list after list of begetting. The curt efficiency of the word (did no one suggest “fathered”?) makes the erotic languor of the Song of Solomon, with its lilies and heaps of wheat, shine out like a jewel.
The world in which these things happen has a particular look and feel that comes not just from the original authors, but often from the translators and the words they favoured. Mystery colours much of it. They like “lurking places of the villages” (Psalms 10: 8), “secret places of the stairs” (Song of Solomon 2:14), and things done “privily”, or “close”. God hides in “pavilions” that seem as mysterious as the shifting dunes of the desert, or the white flapping tents of the clouds. The word “creeping” is used everywhere to suggest that something lives; very little moves fast here, and heads and bellies are bent close to the earth. Even flying is slow, through the thick darkness. People go forth abroad, and waters come down from above, with considerable effort, as though through slowly opening layers. Elements are divided into their constituent parts: the waters of the sea, a flame of fire. A rainbow curves brightly away from the astonished, struggling observer, “in sight like unto an emerald” (Revelation 4: 3). But the grandeur of the language gives momentousness even to the corner of a room, a drain running beside a field, a patch of abandoned ground:
I went by the field of the slothful, and by the vineyard of the
man void of understanding;
And lo, it was all grown over with thorns, and nettles had
covered the face thereof, and the stone wall thereof was
Then I saw, and considered it well; I looked upon it, and
Yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands
to sleep… (Proverbs 24: 30-33)
In such places shepherds “abide” with their sheep, motionless as figures made of stone. This landscape is carved broad and deep, like a woodcut, with sharply folded mountains, thick woven water, stylised trees and cities piled and blocked as with children’s bricks (all the better to be scattered by God later, no stone upon another). A sense of desolation haunts these streets and gates, echoing and shelterless places in which even Wisdom runs wild and cries. Yet within them sometimes we find a scene paced as tensely as in any modern novel, as when a young man in Proverbs steps out,
Passing through the street near her corner; and he went the
way to her house,
In the twilight, in the evening, in the black and dark night:
And, behold, there met him a woman with the attire of an
harlot, and subtil of heart. (Proverbs 7: 8-10)
Just as stained glass shines more brightly for being set in stone, so the King James gains in splendour by comparison with the Revised Standard, Good News, New International and Heaven-knows-what versions that have come later. Thus John’s magnificent “The Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1: 1), has become “The Word was already existing”, scholarship usurping splendour. That lilting line in Genesis (1: 8), “And the evening and the morning were the second day” (note that second “the”, so apparently expendable, yet so necessary to the music) becomes “There was morning, and there was evening”, a broken-backed crawl. The fig-leaf aprons are now reduced to “coverings for themselves”. And the garden planted “eastward in Eden” (Genesis 2: 8), another of the King James’s myriad and scarcely conscious touches of grace, has become “to the east, in Eden” a place from which the magic has drained away.
Everywhere modern translations are more specific, doubtless more accurate, but always less melodious. The King James, deeply scholarly as it is, displaying the best learning of the day, never forgets that the word of God must be heard, understood and retained by the simple. For them—children repeating after the teacher, workers fidgeting in their best clothes, Tyndale’s own whistling ploughboy—rhythm and music are the best aids to remembering. This is language not for silent study but for reading and declaiming aloud. It needs to work like poetry, and poetry it is.
The King James is famous for its monosyllables, great drumbeats of description or admonition: “And God said, Let there be light: and there was light” (Genesis 1: 3); “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God” (Psalms 14: 1); “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread” (Genesis 3: 19). These are fundaments, bases, bricks to build with. Yet its rhythms are also far cleverer than that, endlessly and subtly adjusted. Typically, a King James sentence has two parts broken by a pause around the mid-point, with the first part slightly more declaratory and the second slightly more explanatory: the stronger syllables massed towards the beginning, the weaker crowding softly towards their end. “Surely there is a vein for the silver, and a place for gold where they fine it” (Job 28: 1); “He buildeth his house as a moth, and as a booth that the keeper maketh” (Job 27: 18). But sometimes the order is inverted, and the words too: “As the bird by wandering, as the swallow by flying, so the curse causeless shall not come” (Proverbs 26: 2); “Out of the south cometh the whirlwind: and cold out of the north” (Job 37: 9). Perhaps the whirlwind itself has disordered things. This contrapuntal system even allows for a bit of bathos and fun: “Divers weights are an abomination unto the lord; and a false balance is not good” (Proverbs 20: 23).
Certain devices were available then which modern writers may well envy. The old English language allowed rhythms and syncopations that cannot be employed any more. Consider the use of “even”, dropped in with an almost casual flourish: “And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind” (Revelations 6: 13). Or “neither”, used in the same way: “Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it” (Song of Solomon 8: 7). Modern translations separate those two thoughts, but the beauty lies in their conjunction with a word as light as air.
Undoubtedly the King James has been enhanced for us by the music that now curls round it. “For unto us a child is born” (Isaiah 9: 6) can’t now be read without Handel’s tripping chorus, or “Man that is born of a woman” without Purcell’s yearning melancholy (“He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down” Job 14: 2). Even “To every thing there is a season”, from Ecclesiastes (3: 1), is now overlaid with the nasal, gently stoned tones of Simon & Garfunkel. Yet the King James also lured these musicians in the beginning, snaring them with stray lines that were already singing. “Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples, for I am sick of love” (Song of Solomon 2: 5). “Thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns” (Psalms 22: 21). “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork” (Psalms 19: 1). “I am a brother to dragons, and a companion to owls” (Job 30: 29). Or this, also from the Book of Job, possibly the most beautiful of all the Bible’s books—a passage that flows from one astonishingly random and sudden question, “Hast thou entered into the treasures of the snow?” (Job 38:22):
Hath the rain a father? Or who hath begotten the drops of
Out of whose womb came the ice? And the hoary frost of
heaven, who hath gendered it?
The waters are hid as with a stone, and the face of the deep
Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Plaeiades, or loose
the bands of Orion? (Job 38:28-31)
The beauty of this is inherent, deep in the original mind and eye that formed it. But again, the translators have made choices here: “hid” rather than “hidden”, “gendered” rather than “engendered”, all for the very best rhythmic reasons. We can trust them; we know that they would certainly have employed “hidden” and “engendered” if the music called for it. Unfailingly, their ear is sure. And if we suspect that rhythm sometimes matters more than meaning, that is fine too: it leaves space for the sacred and numinous, that which cannot be grasped, that which lies beyond all words, to move within the lines.
That subtle notion of divinity, however, is seldom uppermost in the Old Testament. This God smites a lot. Three close-printed columns of Young’s Concordance are filled with his smiting, lightly interspersed with other people’s. Mere men use hand weapons, bows and arrows, or, with Jacobean niftiness, “the edge of the sword”; but the God of the King James simply smites, whether Moabites or Jebusites, vines or rocks or first-born, like a broad, bright thunderbolt. No other word could be so satisfactory, the opening consonants clenched like a fist that propels God’s anger down, and in, and on. We know that these are tough workman’s hands: this is the God who “stretcheth out the north over the empty place, and hangeth the earth upon nothing” (Job 26: 7). Smiting must have survived after the King James; but perhaps it was now so soft with over-use, so bruised, that it faded out of the language.
This God surprises, too. He “hisses unto” people, perhaps a cross between a whistle and a whoop, as if marshalling a yard of hens. God goes before, “preventing” us; he whips off our disguises, our clothes or our leaves, “discovering” us, and the shock of the original meanings of those words alerts us to the origins of power itself. “Who can stay the bottles of heaven?” cries a voice in Job 38: 37; and we suspect God again, like a teenage yob this time, lurking in his pavilion of cloud.
At moments like this it also seems that the translators themselves might be mystified, fingers scratching neat beards while they survey the incomprehensible words. Did they really understand, for example, that odd medical diagnosis in Proverbs: “The blueness of a wound cleanseth away evil; so do stripes the inward parts of the belly” (20: 30)? Or these lines from the last chapter of Ecclesiastes, the mystifying staple of so many funerals?
…they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall
be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and
the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail;
because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners
go about the streets:
Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be
broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the
wheel broken at the cistern.
Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was… (Ecclesiastes 12: 5-7)
These are surreal images, unlikely litter in the fields and streets; but they are made all the more potent by the heavy phrasing, the inevitability of the building lines, and the conscious repetition, broken, broken, broken. We know our translators have plenty of synonyms up their sleeves. They choose not to use them. When these lines are read, though we barely know what they mean, they spell despair. And they are meant to, as the man in the pulpit in a moment reminds us:
Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity (Ecclesiastes 12: 8)
Yet often, too, a spirit of playfulness seems to be at work. Consider, lastly, the rain. This is ordinary rain most of the time, malqosh in the Hebrew, and all modern translations make it so. But in the King James we also have “the latter rain”, and “small rain”, and we are alerted to their delicacy and difference. Small rain (“as the small rain upon the tender herb” Deuteronomy 32: 2) is presumably the sort that blows in the air, that makes no imprint on a puddle; the Irish would call it a soft day. And latter rain, perhaps, is the sort that skulks at the end of an afternoon, or suddenly cascades down in an autumn gust, or patters for a desultory few minutes after a day of approaching thunder—and then we open our mouths wide to it, laughing, grateful, as for the word of God.
Ann Wroe  is obituaries and briefings editor of The Economist and author of “Being Shelley”
In this post, which I just wrote, I look at the arguments in the new book by Daniel Markovits. It crystallizes a lot of the issues in the current debate about meritocracy and advances the argument in ways I hadn’t considered before. This is not a review of the book but a teaser to get you to read it for yourself. In it I single out some of his key points and give you some of my favorite quotes from the book. Enjoy.
Daniel Markovits on The Meritocracy Trap
In the last year or two, the media have been filled with critiques of the American meritocracy (e.g., here, here, and here). It’s about time this issue got the critical attention it deserves, since the standard account has long been that the only problem with the meritocracy is that it’s not meritocratic enough. Thus the Varsity Blues college admissions soap opera that has been playing in the press for months now, another case of rich people buying privileged access to credentials they haven’t earned the hard way. That’s an old story of jumping the line and cutting in front of the truly worthy.
But in his new book, The Meritocracy Trap, Daniel Markovits makes a more complex, more interesting, and ultimately more damning critique. The problem with meritocracy, he ways, lies at its very core and not just in its slipshod implementation. It’s a destructive force in modern society, which puts people in the lower 99 percent at a severe disadvantage in the pursuit of social mobility and a good life. But – and this is the less familiar part – it is also damaging to the people in the top group who gain the most financial and social benefits from it. It’s a trap for both groups, and both would be better off without it.
In this post, I want to walk through key parts of the book’s argument and present some of my favorite quotes. Markovits, a professor at Yale Law School, is a very effective writer and the story he tells in not only largely compelling but it’s also compulsively quotable. I hope this teaser will convince you to read the book, which is available in the usual places and also in pirated editions online.
Here’s how he sets up the argument:
Common usage often conflates meritocracy with equality of opportunity. But although meritocracy was embraced as the handmaiden of equality of opportunity, and did open up the elite in its early years, it now more nearly stifles than fosters social mobility. The avenues that once carried people from modest circumstances into the American elite are narrowing dramatically. Middle-class families cannot afford the elaborate schooling that rich families buy, and ordinary schools lag farther and farther behind elite ones, commanding fewer resources and delivering inferior educations. Even as top universities emphasize achievement rather than breeding, they run admissions competitions that students from middle-class backgrounds cannot win, and their student bodies skew dramatically toward wealth. Meritocratic education now predominantly serves an elite caste rather than the general public.
Meritocracy similarly transforms jobs to favor the super-educated graduates that elite universities produce, so that work extends and compounds inequalities produced in school. Competence and an honest work ethic no longer assure a good job. Middle-class workers, without elite degrees, face discrimination all across a labor market that increasingly privileges elaborate education and extravagant training.
The meritocracy thus works at two levels, a hyper-intense winner-take-all competition to get the very best education in an extremely stratified system of schooling coupled with a similarly intense competition in the elite sector of the workforce for the positions at the very top with the most extraordinary financial and social rewards.
This system obviously gives a huge advantage to students who bring the cultural, social, and economic capital that comes from being the children of those who are already in the elite sector. That, as I said, is an old story; no surprise there. But he also shows the price paid by the group at the top. As he puts it,
the rich and the rest are entangled in a single, shared, and mutually destructive economic and social logic. Their seemingly opposite burdens are in fact two symptoms of a shared meritocratic disease. Meritocratic elites acquire their caste through processes that ruthlessly exclude most Americans and, at the same time, mercilessly assault those who do go through them. The powerfully felt but unexplained frustrations that mar both classes—unprecedented resentment among the middle class and inscrutable anxiety among the elite—are eddies in a shared stream, drawing their energies from a single current.
Markovits notes that “For virtually all of human history, income and industry have charted opposite courses.” The rich were idle, living off the land and off the labor of others. The poor were the workhorses of the economy. But today,
High society has reversed course. Now it valorizes industry and despises leisure. As every rich person knows, when an acquaintance asks “How are you?” the correct answer is “So busy.” The old leisure class would have thought this a humiliating admission. The working rich boast that they are in demand.
The result is that, in a dramatic historical reversal, meritocrats at the top of the workforce now work longer hours than the middle or working classes.
In 1940, a typical worker in the bottom 60 percent worked nearly four (or 10 percent) more weekly hours than a typical worker in the top 1 percent. By 2010, the low-income worker devoted roughly twelve (or 30 percent) fewer hours to work than the high-income worker. Taken together, these trends shift the balance of ordinary to elite labor by nearly sixteen hours—or two regulation workdays—per week.
What’s going on here is that in the new meritocracy, top positions go to people who prove their worth not only by accumulating the most highly credentialed skills in school but by demonstrating the greatest dedication to the job. The days of bankers’ hours and white-shoe law firms, with genteel professionals working at a relaxed aristocratic rate, are gone. Take the case of lawyers, which Markovits knows best:
In 1962 (when elite lawyers earned a third of what they do today), the American Bar Association could confidently declare that “there are . . . approximately 1300 fee-earning hours per year” available to the normal lawyer. Today, by contrast, a major law firm pronounces with equal confidence that a quota of 2,400 billable hours “if properly managed” is “not unreasonable,” which is a euphemism for “necessary for having a hope of making partner.” Billing 2,400 hours requires working from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m., six days a week, without vacation or sick days, every week of the year. Graduates of elite law schools join law firms that commonly require associates and even partners to work sixty-, eighty-, and even hundred-hour weeks.
The issue is that the meritocrats are claiming the top rewards not as owners of property but as workers using their own human capital. “Unlike land or factories, human capital can produce income—at least using current technologies—only by being mixed with its owners’ own contemporaneous labor.” In order to win the competition, they need to exploit their own labor.
People who are required to measure up from preschool through retirement become submerged in the effort. They become constituted by their achievements, so that eliteness goes from being something that a person enjoys to being everything that he is. In a mature meritocracy, schools and jobs dominate elite life so immersively that they leave no self over apart from status. An investment banker, enrolled as a two-year-old in the Episcopal School and then passed on to Dalton, Princeton, Morgan Stanley, Harvard Business School, and finally to Goldman Sachs (where he spends his income on sending his children to the schools that he once attended), becomes this résumé, in the minds of others and even in his own imagination.
As a result,
Meritocratic inequality might free the rich in consumption, but it enslaves them in production…. A person who lives like this places himself, quite literally, at the disposal of others—he uses himself up…. The elite, acting now as rentiers of their own human capital, exploit themselves, becoming not just victims but also agents of their own alienation.
Of course, it’s hard to feel sorry for the people who win this competition, since their rewards are so over the top.
David Rockefeller received a salary of about $1.6 million (in 2015 dollars) when he became chairman of Chase Manhattan Bank in 1969, which amounted to roughly fifty times a typical bank teller’s income. Last year Jamie Dimon, who runs JPMorgan Chase today, received a total compensation of $29.5 million, which is over a thousand times as much as today’s banks pay typical tellers.
So no one says, “Poor Jamie Dimon.” But one fundamental consequence of the long work hours of the new elite is that it helps justify their high rewards. Not only are they better educated than you are, they also work harder than you do. So how are you supposed to cry foul about where you ended up in life? By not simply cashing in on their credentials but also by exploiting their own human capital, they provide the meritocracy with iron-clad legitimacy.
To make matters worse, meritocracy—precisely because it justifies economic inequalities and disguises class—denies ordinary Americans any high-minded language through which to explain and articulate the harms and wrongs of their increasing…. They become “victims without a language of victimhood.”
Markovits also connects the rise of meritocracy and the anxieties in foments to the politics of the Trump era.
Meritocracy is therefore far from innocent in the recent rise of nativism and populism. Instead, nativism and populism represent a backlash against meritocratic inequality brought on by advanced meritocracy. Nativism and populism express the same ideological and psychological forces behind the epidemic of addiction, overdose, and suicide that has lowered life expectancy in the white working and middle class.
The contrast with Obama is instructive: “Obama—a superordinate product of elite education—embodied meritocracy’s triumph. Trump—‘a blue-collar billionaire’ who announces ‘I love the poorly educated’ and openly opposes the meritocratic elite—exploits meritocracy’s enduring discontents.” As he observes, “False prophets gain a foothold…because deeply discontented people care—often most and always first—about being heard and not just being helped. They will cling to the only ship that acknowledges the storm.”
Good writers tell stories. This is just as true for academic writers as for novelists and journalists. The story needs actors and actions, and it needs to flow. A sentence is a mini-story. Each sentence needs to flow into the next and so does each paragraph. When readers finish your paper, the need to be able to tell themselves and other what your story is. If they can’t, you haven’t succeeded in drawing them into that story.
Watch how Constance Hale explains how to tell a story in every sentence you write. It’s a piece from Draft the New York Times series on writing from 2012.
New York Times
MARCH 19, 2012, 9:30 PM
The Sentence as a Miniature Narrative
By Constance Hale
I like to imagine a sentence as a boat. Each sentence, after all, has a distinct shape, and it comes with something that makes it move forward or stay still — whether a sail, a motor or a pair of oars. There are as many kinds of sentences as there are seaworthy vessels: canoes and sloops, barges and battleships, Mississippi riverboats and dinghies all-too-prone to leaks. And then there are the impostors, flotsam and jetsam — a log heading downstream, say, or a coconut bobbing in the waves without a particular destination.
My analogy seems simple, but it’s not always easy to craft a sentence that makes heads turn with its sleekness and grace. And yet the art of sentences is not really a mystery.
Over the course of several articles, I will give you the tools to become a sentence connoisseur as well as a sentence artisan. Each of my lessons will give you the insight to appreciate fine sentences and the vocabulary to talk about them.
At some point in our lives, early on, maybe in grade school, teachers give us a pat definition for a sentence — “It begins with a capital letter, ends with a period and expresses a complete thought.” We eventually learn that that period might be replaced by another strong stop, like a question mark or an exclamation point.
But that definition misses the essence of sentencehood. We are taught about the sentence from the outside in, about the punctuation first, rather than the essential components. The outline of our boat, the meaning of our every utterance, is given form by nouns and verbs. Nouns give us sentence subjects — our boat hulls. Verbs give us predicates — the forward momentum, the twists and turns, the abrupt stops.
For a sentence to be a sentence we need a What (the subject) and a So What (the predicate). The subject is the person, place, thing or idea we want to express something about; the predicate expresses the action, condition or effect of that subject. Think of the predicate as a predicament — the situation the subject is in.
I like to think of the whole sentence as a mini-narrative. It features a protagonist (the subject) and some sort of drama (the predicate): The searchlight sweeps. Harvey keeps on keeping on. The drama makes us pay attention.
Let’s look at some opening lines of great novels to see how the sentence drama plays out. Notice the subject, in bold, in each of the following sentences. It might be a simple noun or pronoun, a noun modified by an adjective or two or something even more complicated:
“They shoot the white girl first.” — Toni Morrison, “Paradise”
“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.” — James Joyce, “Ulysses”
“The Miss Lonelyhearts of the New York Post-Dispatch (Are-you-in-trouble? — Do-you-need-advice? — Write-to-Miss-Lonelyhearts-and-she-will-help-you) sat at his desk and stared at a piece of white cardboard.” — Nathanael West, “Miss Lonelyhearts”
Switching to the predicate, remember that it is everything that is not the subject. In addition to the verb, it can contain direct objects, indirect objects, adverbs and various kinds of phrases. More important, the predicate names the predicament of the subject.
“Elmer Gantry was drunk.” — Sinclair Lewis, “Elmer Gantry”
“Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu.” — Ha Jin, “Waiting”
There are variations, of course. Sometimes the subject is implied rather than stated, especially when the writer uses the imperative mood:
“Call me Ishmael.” — Herman Melville, “Moby Dick”
And sometimes there is more than one subject-predicate pairing within a sentence:
“We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall.” — Louise Erdrich, “Tracks”
One way to get the hang of such mini-narratives is to gently imitate great one-liners. Try taking each one of the sentences above and plugging in your own subjects and predicates, just to sense the way that nouns and verbs form little stories.
Another way to experiment with subjects and predicates is to write your epitaph — either seriously or in jest. The editors of SmithMagazine challenged their readers to put their lives into six words and have published the best results. Here are some examples of Six-Word Memoirs that do the subject-predicate tango:
“Told to Marry Rich, married Richard.” (JMorris)
“My parents should’ve kept their receipt.” (SarahBeth)
When a sentence lacks one of its two essential parts, it is called a sentence fragment. Like the flotsam I mentioned earlier, fragments are adrift, without clear direction or purpose.
Playing with sentence fragments can be fun — the best copywriters use them for memorable advertising slogans (Alka-Seltzer’s “Plop plop, fizz fizz”). But there are plenty of competing Madison Avenue slogans to convince you that a full sentence registers equally well — from Esso’s “Put a tiger in your tank” to The Heublein Company’s “Pardon me, would you have any Grey Poupon?” While sentence fragments can be witty, they are still shards of thoughts, better suited to hawking antacids than to penning the Great American Novel or earnestly attempting to put inchoate thoughts into indelible words.
If sentence fragments are like flotsam, a profusion of subjects is like jetsam. Too many subjects thrown in can cause a passage to become muddy. We are especially prone to losing control of our subjects when we speak. Take these off-the-cuff remarks by President George Bush at a 1988 Milwaukee campaign stop around Halloween:
“We had last night, last night we had a couple of our grandchildren with us in Kansas City — 6-year-old twins, one of them went as a package of Juicy Fruit, arms sticking out of the pack, the other was Dracula. A big rally there. And Dracula’s wig fell off in the middle of my speech and I got to thinking, watching those kids, and I said if I could look back and I had been president for four years: What would you like to do? Those young kids here. And I’d love to be able to say that working with our allies, working with the Soviets, I’d found a way to ban chemical and biological weapons from the face of the earth.”
As the subjects in those sentences keep shifting — from we to twins, one of them, the other, we(implied), wig, I, I, I, you, kids, I, and I — his message keeps shifting, too. Mr. Bush’s speechwriter,Peggy Noonan, has written that the president was “allergic to I.” He seemed to feel uncomfortable calling attention to himself, so he performed what Noonan called “I-ectomies” in his speeches.
Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. may not share Mr. Bush’s aversion to I, but a sentence from his2008 vice-presidential debate shows how he, too, could lose track of his subjects:
“If you need any more proof positive of how bad the economic theories have been, this excessive deregulation, the failure to oversee what was going on, letting Wall Street run wild, I don’t think you needed any more evidence than what you see now.”
Biden not only shifts from you to I and back to you again, he throws three sentence fragments into the middle of his sentence, each featuring a different subject.
Syntax gets a lot more complicated than subjects and predicates, but understanding the relationship between the hull and the sail, the What and the So What, is the first step in mastering the dynamics of a sentence. In future weeks we’ll delve into more ways you can play with subjects and predicates, but first, in the next few lessons I will write, we’ll explore the raw materials of sentence-building: nouns, adjectives and verbs.
Just as there is no one perfect boat, there is no one perfect sentence structure. Mark Twain wrote sentences that were as humble, sturdy and American as a canoe; William Faulkner wrote sentences as gaudy as a Mississippi riverboat. But no matter the atmospherics, the best sentences bolt a clear subject to a dramatic predicate, making a mini-narrative. Tell us your favorite sentences from literature in the comments section below, and identify the subject and the predicate. We’ll publish some of the best ones in Draft later this week.
Constance Hale, a journalist based in San Francisco, is the author of “Sin and Syntax” and the forthcoming “Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch.” She covers writing and the writing life atsinandsyntax.com.